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Carl Sagan: A Life Hardcover – August 30, 1999

3.4 out of 5 stars 50 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

Carl Sagan may have been one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. Then again, he may have been a relentless self-promoter who convinced everyone he was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. Keay Davidson, science writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, aims to explain this complicated man in his biography. One thing is clear: Sagan was an extremely difficult man to love, a scientist whose passion for astronomy and biology was unparalleled, but who had little ability to express basic emotions to his wives and children. Davidson looks for reasons for this emotional distance in Sagan's childhood, when his relationship with his mother was intense and sometimes difficult. She encouraged her bright young son to be an "intellectual omnivore," to be passionate about knowledge, but she didn't give him the tools to relate to humans as individuals.

As his stellar science career developed, Sagan built a reputation as a leftist who believed that "science could serve liberal ideals," and as an arrogant man with an unshakable confidence in his own brain. Davidson writes that Sagan developed his famous skepticism as an undergraduate. Sagan suffered from a "troubling mix of intense emotion and stark rationalism," writes Davidson. He succeeded (mostly) in balancing passion with reason, a balance that made him a perfect popularizer of science, a trustworthy authority who preached that an open mind was the most valuable scientific tool. Davidson was influenced personally by Sagan's writings, and he sometimes works a little too hard at puncturing the myths surrounding Sagan, but this biography is one that deserves to be read by Sagan's fans and detractors alike. It's a compelling, very real assessment of an all-too-human god of science. --Therese Littleton

From Publishers Weekly

In a superbly researched biography of one of the 20the century's most influential yet controversial scientists, Davidson (coauthor, Wrinkles in Time) leaves no doubt about where he feels his subject stands. "What is a visionary?" he asks in the closing chapter. "Carl Sagan measured time in eons and space in light years; he maintained an interplanetary perspective." Though many of Davidson's anecdotes echo those in William Poundstone's Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos (reviewed above), he actively guides readers to conclusions, where Poundstone merely lays out the facts. Though not avoiding Sagan's many failings as a person, Davidson never allows his readers to lose sight of the grand visions, brilliant insights and brash speculations that inspired and educated Sagan's audiences. The book is at its strongest when it shows the inner Sagan through his most influential works: the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dragons of Eden; the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning television series Cosmos; his SF novel Contact; and his scientific publications about the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus, the windblown dust responsible for "waves of darkening" on Mars and the threat of "nuclear winter" after a limited nuclear war on earth. The volume is weakest when, instead of holding Sagan responsible for his sometimes arrogant behavior, it offers excuses from pop psychology. Though nonscientific readers may find Davidson's biography sufficient, naturally skeptical scientific readers may find its conclusions too firm for comfort. They should read Poundstone first, then turn to Davidson to complete the picture.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (August 30, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0471252867
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471252863
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.7 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,819,465 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Carl Sagan : A Life by Keay Davidson; (see also my review at Carl Sagan : A Life in the Cosmos by William Poundstone - 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
Imagine if you will - the biographer of Leonardo da Vinci portraying him, not as an artist, not as innovator - but as a failed helicopter designer. What a travesty!
That's the feeling I got reading Keay Davidson's biography of Carl Sagan. For the most part the book highlights Sagan's numerous failures in his scientific career. And contains numerous disparaging words on Sagan's "undeserved" fame - the most stinging being Edwards Teller's parting remark of Sagan, "What did he do? What did he discover?" (pg 380)
Clearly, Davidson has missed the mark here - not on facts but on focus. Sagan's work was never in the same league with that of - say - Feynman, Bohr or Einstein. We know this. We accept this. And he can hardly be blamed for such a shortcoming since astrophysics has hardly been at the frontiers of science - as, say particle physics or mathematical physics. (Well, perhaps not since the times of Kepler, Galileo and Newton.)
Davidson admits to being influenced by Sagan, (more than just once) and he comes across as a fan still pretty much in awe of his idol. I don't really blame him for that. In fact, if Davidson had paid more attention to this line of thought - Sagan's influence - rather than Sagan's science, the book may have come closer to capturing the spirit of awe and wonder that Sagan seemed to wield almost effortlessly, especially to millions of television viewers across the globe.
Sagan was more than a scientist. He was more than a teacher. Sagan was - to me and millions of people like me around the globe - a Svengali of science. The first - but hopefully not the last. I can say with absolute certainty that I may never have given a career in physics a second thought, had I not, as child, been dazzled by the television series Cosmos.
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Format: Hardcover
It's important to put the emphasis on my one-line summary on "human". The purpose of a biography is not to blindly adulate the topic, as the previous one-star review seems to suggest. Davidson has done an exhaustive job of researching and recounting the life of a man who inspired an entire generation of kids, myself included, and yet was painfully human in typical, almost predictable, ways.
The portrait that Davidson paints with this hefty tome (over 400 pages of text, and another 100 pages of footnotes, bibliography, and index) respectfully depicts the penultimate showman-scientist of the 20th century. It's difficult to be a good scientist without being driven, and Sagan was nothing if not driven. But he also had a flamboyant imagination, one that would alternately drive and undermine his scientific contributions. It's awfully hard to be that famous and not get a big head, and by Davidson's account, his head grew awfully big.
The previous reviewer faulted Davidson for getting as much input from Sagan's detractors as from his admirers. Of course he did. Davidson is a science writer, writing for a primarily scientifically-inclined audience; he is not writing for "Entertainment Tonight". I personally found the comments of first wife Lynn Margulis to be exceptionally even-keeled for an ex-wife (one wonders what invective would have been unearthed had Linda Salzman consented to an interview).
Ultimately, Davidson has depicted Sagan as the human being that he was, warts and all, because that is indeed who Sagan was. To sugarcoat the man's life to appease his adulators would have ultimately done humanity a disservice. I came away from this book not only respecting Sagan as much as I ever have, but feeling privileged to have received a glimpse of the real human being behind the television persona.
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