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Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos Hardcover – October 21, 1999

4.2 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1st edition (October 21, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805057668
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805057669
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.6 x 9.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #885,937 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

William Poundstone is the author of two previous Hill and Wang books: Fortune's Formula and Gaming the Vote.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on October 30, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Many of us who knew Carl Sagan understood how he compartmentalized his complex life. Few had an inkling how rich, surprising, and often tragic it was; how Sagan faced down death;how he hurt and cut off many and helped more.
For the reader, while rewarding to see that Sagan was a driven, and polymathic person (as a few of us knew well), it is also shocking and even distressing to see details of Sagan's private life up for ultimate scrutiny. In fairness, Poundstone was doing his job. In comparison, Davidson's competing bio of Sagan (also read by this reviewer)is a revolting escapade into several episodes of spiteful, foul-mouth invective, and marijuana haze, additionally peppered with unfortunate inaccuracies. I found no statements in error in Poundstone's book, although more than a few for which I could disagree upon his interpretation.
Superb portions in this bio abound; in fact, the decription of Viking is the best I have seen; Poundstone took me back.
A disappointment: Sagan's secretary, Shirley Arden, should have been front and center here, but shows up as a minor allusion. Shirley is a miracle worker, and for anyone interested in Sagan, it is salient to note her key role of support, editorial acumen, organizational savvy, surrogate mothering, and many other lovely attributes in making Carl Sagan a mensch.
A bittersweet book of a remarkable life,all too short. Sagan is missed but Poundstone helps make sure he will not be forgotten.
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Format: Hardcover
I just finished the this biography the other night, having read it right after Keay Davidson's competing book. I admit I had to wipe away tears at the end of each.
I thought both books were excellent, although I would give Poundstone a slight edge. I recommend that Sagan enthusiasts read both, and in the order I did--first Davidson, then Poundstone. Davidson's book is a little more linear and narrative, so it gives a better overview. Poundstone's is more detailed, being especially strong in discussion of the purely scientific aspects of Sagan's career. His coverage of the nuclear winter controversy is particularly good. On the other hand, Poundstone jumps around more, so it's easier to follow if you already have Davidson under your belt.
The reason I give Poundstone the edge is that I feel he is more journalistically evenhanded than Davidson, who wastes no opportunity to advance his political agenda. Poundstone is careful to point out the strengths of the arguments of Sagan's opponents, while Davidson dismisses them summarily.
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Format: Hardcover
Carl Sagan : A Life in the Cosmos by William Poundstone; (see also my review at Carl Sagan : A Life by Keay Davidson - this review considers both books)
Carl Sagan is easily the second most famous scientist of the 20th century. If you came of age in the period 1970-1990, you were influenced by Sagan - period. Whatever you may think of him as a scientist, you must admit that nobody did more to popularize science in the public eye during this period. The two most obvious examples are his Cosmos television series and his numerous appearances with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.
Poundstone's book reflects Ann Druyan's influence much more than Davidson's. The result is a much more flattering account of Sagan's life, potentially minimizing some of the warts. Davidson, if anything, spends too much effort trying to psychohistorically analyze Sagan's two failed marriages and his fractured relationship with oldest son Dorion.
Davidson also focuses much more attention on Sagan's books, attempting to plot the development of his career as a scientist and maturity as a writer based on each book's unique character. Here again, he attempts to delve below the surface into the hidden motives and influences. For instance, while both Poundstone and Davidson detail Sagan's marijuana use, Davidson goes further and suggests that the Pulitzer-winning Dragon's of Eden was largely a marijuana- induced work.
William Poundstone Focuses more on his scientific achievements, with emphasis on the many conferences he chaired regarding SETI, exobiology, and his work on the Voyager and Mariner probes to Mars and the gas giants. Some of the reviews of the latter actually read like a popular scientific account of these missions, written around Sagan's contribution and perspective.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Quick-name a scientist!. Was your answer Carl Sagan? It probably was-no other person has brought so much science to the public. His loss to a rare disease four years ago left a void still unfilled by anyone else. His life in science and the workings of science itself are worthy of exploration by any educated person, and two biographies that have appeared over the last year serve that purpose well.
I sampled Carl's life through William Poundstone's Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos (Henry Holt, 473 pages, paperback, $16) when it first appeared, just before the other book came to print. Having my appetite whetted, I purchased Davidson's book but let it sit on the shelf awhile-after all, how different could it be? How wrong I was!
Poundstone's book indeed introduces the reader to all of the details of his life, but with a somewhat detached viewpoint, a workman-like effort. This is reflected in the chapter breaks arranged by years and location. Keay Davidson's Carl Sagan: A Life (Wiley, 540 pages, paperback,$18), on the other hand, gets emotionally involved with the story of Sagan's life, and weaves some themes among the details-not quite judgmental, but observant. Davidson makes his logical breaks at Sagan's projects and ideas. While this makes for some jumps and repeats, these are forgiven for his more interesting overall flow. Both authors are science writers of some note, and not scientists themselves.
Read Poundstone for the science-it is complete and detailed. Particularly well done and relevant to recent NASA discoveries is the story of Carl's involvement in the Viking probes that looked for life on Mars in the 1970s.
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