Science writer William Poundstone (and biographer of game-theory guru John von Neumann
) begins this book of deftly strung anecdotes from the life of pop-science demigod Carl Sagan with the following anecdote: four-year-old Carl, a Jewish kid growing up near the Jersey shore, rides piggyback on his dad's shoulders into the 1939 World's Fair and the "World of Tomorrow." Surrounded by mocked-up "rocketports," GM's "Futurama," and the promise of outlandish technology to come, it's easy to imagine the impact on this little guy who was to become one of our century's most visionary and visible scientists. A childhood friend tells Poundstone that "from an early age Carl was seized with the fabulous mission of searching for life on other worlds," a quest that would dominate his entire professional career.
Poundstone recounts how this quest drove the immensely intelligent, ambitious, and charismatic Sagan, from his discovery of Arthur C. Clarke to his predictable adolescent chemistry-set accidents to his colorful academic career and professional work on the Viking and Voyager missions, nuclear disarmament, the award-winning Cosmos, and Robert Zemeckis' Contact. What recommends this biography most, though, isn't its completeness but its style: Poundstone has divided the 500-plus-page book into over 200 easily digestible, addictive little sections, each an entertaining or illuminating (or, often, laugh-out-loud) anecdote from Sagan's life, with titles like "Pornography in Space," "Muskrats, Drunkards, Extraterrestrials," and "Sagan Versus Apple Computer." (The in-house name for the mid-range PowerMac 7100 was "Carl Sagan," the joke being that it would make Apple "billions and billions." But forced to change it by Sagan, Apple switched to "BHA," later revealed to stand for "Butt-Head Astronomer"--Sagan sued for libel.) --Paul Hughes
From Publishers Weekly
It is impossible to be neutral about Carl Sagan (1934-1996). Though supporters and detractors agree that he was one of the most brilliant and influential scientists of the 20th century, they argue about the ways he handled his gifts, fame and prominence. Poundstone (Prisoner's Dilemma; Big Secrets) does nothing to reconcile these disparities. Instead, he lays out the details of Sagan's life and work, revealing why some people idolized him and others disdained him. Sagan's overwhelming need for love and attention destroyed his first marriage to Lynn Margulis, Poundstone explains. Decades later, Margulis remains ambivalent, admiring Sagan the public figure but not the man. Second wife Linda Salzman could neither forgive Sagan nor understand his betrayal when he and their friend Ann Druyan announced that they were profoundly in love and planned to marry. Salzman is conspicuously missing from Poundstone's list of acknowledgments, just as Sagan's alienated best friend, Lester Grinspoon, was conspicuously absentAso reports PoundstoneAfrom Sagan's deathbed. Sagan's scientific and public life is best known for its central quest and mission: searching for extraterrestrial life and sharing his love of science with the world. The so-far fruitless quest for ET continues, but Sagan's mission succeeded beyond all expectations. Because his greatest allegiance was to truth, Sagan would probably like this book. It tells readers why he chose to warn the world about "nuclear winter" despite weaknesses in the theory, and it includes the influence of marijuana highs on his work. Poundstone does not draw conclusions, but presents the evidence of Sagan's life and allows readers to develop their own theories of what that life might mean to their own. 16 b&w photos. Agent, John Brockman. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.