Customer Reviews: Carl Sagan: A Life
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on July 30, 2000
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.
A very rough generalization would be that Davidson looks more closely at Sagan's personal life while Poundstone looks more closely at his scientific achievemnts, though both books do cover the whole picture. Poundstone's book left me with more of a positive regard for Sagan though, and struck me as the better book of the two. Poundstone's account strikes me as first and foremost a work of scientific biography, with more detail of Sagan's scientific achievements.
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on October 20, 2002
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.
To Teller's question, I have this to say: Sagan discovered within us the ability to see ourselves as residents of an infinite universe. He made "wonder" a legitimate part of the scientific experience.
I just wish Davidson had said something like that in his biography - instead of letting Teller have the last word: "You waste your time writing about a nobody."
Don't waste your time with this book - especially if you grew up in awe of Sagan's art.
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on October 23, 1999
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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on November 16, 1999
Four and five stars, I mean; and perhaps its because this book makes us less sure of the real Carl Sagan (compared to Poundstone's treatment). This is a year for biography and memoirs and I've been reading more than my share. What is interesting here is that we see that supposed other side of Sagan. In Goodall's Reason for Hope we see the other side of her pure science("Hope"); in Zoland's Nabokov's Blues we see the other side of Nabokov never appreciated before. Perhaps Davidson's best contribution, therefore, is the treading of this new ground...the more complex Carl Sagan, the "harder to read", harder to encapsulate. It will be tremendously interesting to see how later history judges Sagan and these early biographies will certainly figure in that telling. Davidson is to be congratulated for taking the risk to do something different with his data. This is a book worth reading-- and comparing not only to the "other" Sagan by Poundstone, but the other glimpses of scientific personalities the year has given us-- Glenn, Goodall, Nabokov, etc. Wade into it!
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on October 28, 2002
While the book is loaded with facts and figures, proof that the author had done a great deal of impressive research, this research then passes through the author's own "filter", one which that carries a very specific agenda. From the very first pages, it is clear that the author is trying to tarnish Sagan's image as much as possible, while pretending to be objective.
The book was lavishingly generous with negative quotations about Sagan. Most of the interviewed were those who had something toxic to say, while the other side, such as the many students who loved Sagan their teacher, were ignored, or given lip-service in the briefest manner, to keep the space for those others who bore grudges, and to create the impression that the latter were the majority. This selective process is followed throughout the entire book, giving maximum space to the voices of jealous colleagues and vexed ex-wives. The author seemed to be the spokesman of everyone who was deeply jealous of Sagan's popularity, forgetting that Sagan's works, not just on TV ( for which, many colleagues apparently never forgave him ), but also his brilliant writings, speak for themselves.
To add insult to injury, the author never stops to bestow his own psychoanalytical explanations on Sagan's acts, pretending to know hidden motives so well as if he were living inside Sagan's very own mind. No event escapes the attempt of the author to provide his very own interpretation of the feelings or thoughts "underlying it", all of which is not based on any quotations or confessions of Sagan to anybody, but on the author's own conjectures, constantly offered as though they were facts.
The only messages that Davidson succeeded in getting through to me as a reader are these:
1- He, the author, by constantly putting his voice first, assuming the role of self-appointed shrink, and presenting his opinions as if they were facts, was in violation of the very basics of objectivity required to write a biography (whether that was motivated by a calculated effort to tarnish Sagan's image at the cost of some basic ethics, or whether he simply couldn't bring his own inflated ego out of the way in anything he does as a general rule, is something I, unlike him, would not profess to know).
2- The author seems to have been trying hard to do a big favor to someone else embittered by Sagan's success. It is so obvious that there is something personal at stake, and the reader feels taken for a ride amidst what seems like a blatant attempt to "settle scores" at the expense of the deceased Sagan, and at the expense of the readers themselves.
I advise readers to check another biography, or to read Sagan's own works..Nothing is as "intellectually abusive" as a pretense of being objective that hides behind it bias and hidden agendas..any reader of average insight would see through. Davidson is as objective towards his subject as is the parasite towards the life it is feeding upon.
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on October 29, 1999
I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, this book is very well written and very interesting. It kept my interest from start to finish and was hard to put down. The detailed anecdotes and thoughts of Sagan's friends, colleagues and family members make for very interesting reading. I also came away with an enhanced respect for Sagan as a scientist. On the other hand, I think Davidson goes to far injecting his personal anti-science opinions and in tearing down Sagan's books. For instance, Davidson goes on a tirade trashing "Dragons of Eden", which was a magnificent achievement. I think there was some jealousy of Sagan among scientific circles, since it was Sagan who got all the attention. Maybe Davidson is a little jealous of Sagan's mega-success too. Despite this, I do feel the book is worth reading.
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on January 27, 2000
In contrast to a few of my fellow readers I found this lengthy, thoroughly researched book a good read. Did I find that Sagan had skeletons in the closet? Yes, including a claim of wife-beating. Was I surprised he was egotistical? No, especially the way he lived for self-promotion. The latter cannot be such a character trait to condemn the man since very few ego-less people ever aspire to the publishing and television genius he demonstrated. I do not ask that biographies of the people I hold in some esteem be sugar-coated (and this one isn't). I learned long ago that successful people make enemies who are all too happy to talk about them after their demise. I simply ask that the biography be well documented which this book is with over 100 pages of source references at the end.
I did not finish the book with the belief, stated elsewhere, that the author disliked Sagan. Rather, Sagan was portrayed at worst as short on hands-on science, but long on dreams and ideas. While hard scientists may fault this portion of his work, it is what endeared him to his ultimate true audience: the readers of his books and his television audience. Sagan had a gift for explaining complicated ideas to non-scientists. Was this a fault? Of course not. It was a gift. To date, no scientist has picked up his mantel with the masses.
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on October 22, 1999
To TV viewers, astronomer Carl Sagan was the guy who raised the IQ of The Tonight Show; to colleagues, he was a brilliant scientist or a shameless attention-grabber (or both); to those close to him, he was a passionate and complicated man; and to a generation of kids, he was an inspiration. In his deftly crafted and exhaustively researched biography, science writer Keay Davidson brings to life all facets of Sagan's complex and sometimes contradictory personality. Although the book has its share of bombshells (its revelation of Sagan's marijuana use has been front-page news), it's in no way sensational. Rather, its pleasures lie in the lyricism of Davidson's prose, as it takes Sagan from his problematic childhood to a deathbed farewell to his beloved wife that will leave the crustiest science buffs weeping. The book is tough, fair, intensely observant, and a lightning read. It's also a fascinating look at life on the cusp between academia and the limelight - required reading for anyone who ever wondered how scientists work, think, squabble, and live.
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By his enemies, detractors, and those envious of him, Carl Sagan has been called a "bozo", a "psuedoscientist", an "idiot", a "moron", and many other names that need not be repeated here. Those who like him though do so unabashedly, and in rare instances have had their scientific careers stymied because of their admitted admiration of him. It is fair to say, and an in-depth statistical study may support this, that the scientific community is automatically dismissive of public figures and the general public, and get angry when anyone within their midst attempts to explain things to people in these two classes. It is almost as though the attempt to explain difficult scientific ideas and concepts to the general public constitutes almost a criminal act, to be punished by banishment from professional societies and academia. The reason for this anger is unknown, and does not seem to serve any useful or constructive purpose either within the scientific community or outside of it.

Although the author is not a practicing scientist, from the words in this book it is apparent that he identifies with the general scientific community in their attitude about the popularization of science. The author comes across as being deeply cynical, and this is readily apparent throughout the book. It seems he has a score to settle with Sagan and he endeavors throughout the book to take Sagan down a notch and expose his faults and inadequacies. The book for this reason is difficult to read, for it confuses objectivity with blatant negativism. What is needed in the case of Carl Sagan is a biographer who will not engage in uncritical adulation and yet at the same time not become indulged in muckracking.

Indeed, the author makes it a point to bring out Sagan's alleged use of marijuana, his reluctance to assist his wives in housework, and his shortcomings as a father to his children. He discusses the zeal with which several scientists denied Sagan admission to the National Academy of Sciences, and Sagan's supposed inability to discuss scientific topics in depth. The author therefore patronizes the reader, with the implicit assumption that the reader has been unduly influenced by Sagan and needs assistance and release from this influence. The emotional responses that many have obtained by viewing Cosmos or reading some of Sagan's works is dismissed as being a result of Sagan's skilled oratory. It seems to never occur to the author that such responses are a natural consequence to being exposed to ideas that are accurate and true.

It is a little over ten years since Sagan has passed on, but his legacy is alive and well, and even though he has made many contributions to both science and its popularization, his most profound contribution, and one that outweighs the rest by many orders of magnitude, is his implicit demonstration that the history of the human species has been one of brilliant developments rather than war and strife. For a human being to purposely take the life of another is actually extremely rare, but it is frequently taught, both in educational institutions and outside of them, that the human species is a destructive and dangerous one. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the writings of Sagan illustrate this time and again. It would be incorrect therefore, and statistically invalid, to say that his view of history is romanticized and idealistic. It is the most realistic of any that currently exist, and deserves to be propagated at a large scale. There has yet to arise an effective surrogate to Carl Sagan, at least from the standpoint of someone who delivers the message in books, movies, and television as effectively as he did. But there are millions, or shall we say, billions and billions, of individuals that make up the collective genius of the human species, and it is these individuals, some known and some unknown, that are so eloquently described and championed by Sagan throughout his writings and personal life.
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on September 25, 2002
Biographies about truly exceptional individuals are risky affairs because they are usually written by unexceptional individuals. A good biographer is always aware of this and avoids the worst pitfalls by keeping himself out of the biography, thus allowing the life he is examining to stand on its own. A lousy biographer is blithely unaware of this and will inject his own prejudices and shortcomings into the biography, thus smothering the story in "spin". Davidson is of the lousy sort.
Davidson's incessant yammering makes this biography a special form of torture. He plays everything from armchair psychoanalyst to coffee house sage. By the end, it becomes clear that this book is not about his subject matter as much as it is about himself. The life of Carl Sagan is just a convenient hook on which to hang his own politics, values and biases. There are passages where he does not even bother to conceal his scorn. There are others where bias is dressed up to look like objective analysis. It's not clear which is worse.
Most readers are capable of reaching their own conclusions. It is neither necessary nor desirable for a biographer to also act as a colour commentator. When such commentary is lobbed at us like mortar shells, the natural reaction is to run for cover.
When I picked up this book, I was hoping to form some insights into a man who had fascinated me. But I wanted to form my own insights, not have the biographer's opinions get in my face. I can decide for myself, thank you, whether Sagan was wise to choose a certain course in life, whether he was a good husband and father, whether he sacrificed his scientific integrity in his pursuit of fame. A good biographer exposes all of the wrinkles in the life he is examining: he doesn't try ironing them out for us.
If you are the kind of reader who can ignore the clown frantically waving on the sidelines, I suspect that you can glean some essentials about the life of Carl Sagan from the chaff that chokes this offering, and this may make the book worth a read. But if you find it difficult to filter out baloney, you will find this book a tortuous experience filled with biased innuendo, unsolicited moralizing and soapbox opera.
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