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.