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Carl Sagan: A Life Hardcover – August 30, 1999

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Editorial Reviews 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 (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,392,962 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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44 of 47 people found the following review helpful By John Rummel on July 30, 2000
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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44 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Mathew Titus on October 20, 2002
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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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Charles Ashbacher HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 28, 2001
Format: Paperback
It is a regrettable fact of human nature that success creates enemies, no matter how the success was achieved. Jealousy being what it is, there will always be those who will dislike a successful person simply for what they have accomplished. Carl Sagan was a showman, no question about it. He had the stage presence of an accomplished actor, which in many ways he was. At the same time, he was also a good scientist, again no question about it. He was able to converse in many different fields, making significant contributions in planetary science and posing some questions that have led others to many different results. Finally, he was a first class author, winning awards for his writing. These characteristics led to a great deal of bad feelings towards him, some of which he could have blunted and a little of which appears in this book.
I generally found the book to be a good, interesting description of the life of Carl Sagan, but there was one point that I found particularly annoying. There is no doubt that Sagan was not much of a family man in his early years, almost completely refusing to do any of the household or child rearing chores. What I found trying was the author�s continuing amateur psychoanalysis, attributing this to a problem concerning his domineering mother. The author completely ignores the American society of the late fifties and early sixties, where it was the husband�s job to pursue a career and the wife was to take care of house and family and unconditionally support his career path. While Sagan may have been more distant than most fathers, his fundamental approach was identical to the overwhelming majority of men. To attribute this to the relationship with his mother is absurd.
Sagan also changed over the years to become more of a father and worker about the house.
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