Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Prions and Ice Nine

An article in today's paper about Kurt Vonnegut prompts me to recommend a book. Two actually. First, Cat's Cradle. If you haven't read it, it's worth the time, even if only as the key to my second recommendation, Deadly Feasts, by Richard Rhodes. The second is really what this post is about.

Published in 1997, I made the mistake of picking up Rhodes's book in the library while doing research for a dissertation on Cormac McCarthy. I couldn't put it down. Mad cow was relatively new then, and still somewhat mysterious. Not after I'd read that book. It was downright terrifying.

I recommended reading Vonnegut first because, in the end, it's Ice Nine that Rhodes uses as an analogy for how prions work, how the proteins can exist in the body and not be perceived as foreign. The reason: they aren't. They're simply a new shape to a pre-existing protein, but one that, like Ice Nine, is preferred. What's needed is a seed crystal. That's why it's infectious. Having taught Vonnegut's book in college classes, I found Rhodes analogy immediately vivid.

If you don't think you can stomach the Vonnegut, I still recommend the Rhodes. As non-fiction goes, I've never read another "page turner" quite like it.