- 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: 27 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,240,027 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos Hardcover – October 21, 1999
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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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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.
Astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, science popularizer- Sagan was a superstar along with Einstein and Stephen Hawking. With that handsome face, that dazzling smile, that huge enthusiasm for Planet Earth and for the Cosmos, he was a pitchman for the glory of the universe. Sagan was selling the belief that there are extraterrestrials out there because statistically with millions of inhabitable planets with a star life must occur- somewhere. Sagan's version of snake oil was hugely popular on television and in his books and he seemed to have everything except for a long life.
Sagan wrote:: "Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality". He offered his readers a sort of magic carpet which conveyed them on a voyage admidst the stars. But Sagan's superb showmanship rankled in the minds of many scientists who felt he was less after the truths to be found in research than projecting himself, an egotistic publicity seeker concerned with his image.There was probably involved a lot of just plain jealousy. He had his fingers in many pies almost obsessively, taking on many projects. Perhaps the failure of his first two marriages occurred because he simply did not have time for family life. Author Poundstone does not get emotionally involved in Sagan's private life, however. He is even-handed and somewhat cool.
Sagan was distracted by science and his place within it. Perhaps in spite of that dazzling smile he was lonely. He was obsessed- he wanted to save the world- our world. Poundstone's scientific biography is very comprehensive but you might come away wondering if you understand Carl Sagan. Poundstone does not try to probe too deeply into Sagan's psyche. Sagan was a man with flaws but a Titan.
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. The disagreements on the choice of landing sites and the critical decisions on which experiments to repeat or change a bit between the limited number of runs reveal the tough choices that have to be made in science, often with insufficient information.
Davidson's forte', however, is the flare for interpreting Sagan's vibrant personality and his personal life as revealed through both his public presence and private affairs. The author spends more time on Carl's books (including Pulitzer-winning Dragons of Eden), TV works (popular visits on Johnny Carson and his PBS hit, "Cosmos"), and movie (Contact, featuring a performance by Jodie Foster that would have pleased him greatly had he lived to see the film's completion). Yet, Carl's entry into the public arena was not always looked favorably upon by his peers. His having been rejected for tenure at Harvard and blackballed for membership in the prestigious National Academy of Science are certainly partially attributable to his limelight activities. I suspect his colleagues, with their nose to the grindstone of their often boring sub-sub-specialties were secretly envious of this rising star and generalist of science. Here was a man who studied the stars, warned of nuclear winter, got arrested in a protest, developed a "best of Earth" album to affix to the starbound Voyager probe, and debunked pseudoscience. He appeared in NASA press conferences as comfortably as on the Tonight Show. Published articles in the Astrophysical Journal and in the Sunday supplement Parade magazine.
If you want a taste of how modern science operates, and of the personal hustle necessary for success, Poundstone's work covers the bases, and does so with more depth. Davidson appears to have more details with an extensive list of reference notes, but it is mostly in the form of quotations that are of low impact in the unfolding story. He also has an annoying habit born of the word processing age: familiar phrases, and other chunks of text that are repeated a bit too frequently to not be noticed.
For the person intrigued with the romance of science, and romance in general, Davidson's A Life is for you. Not to be sexist, but if women are truly from Venus and men from Mars (and Sagan made fundamental contributions to the study of both planets), the female readers would want to read Davidson and the men Poundstone. I'm not sure whether Carl would approve of this advice-while he was obviously a chauvinist at home, at least with his first two wives, he was a promoter of female scientists at work!
If you read them both, I would read Poundstone first, for the science. With that as a basis you can allow your self to be immersed in the personality developments presented by Davidson. In either book you will find rewarding reading about a man sorely missed by those of us who appreciate both doing good science and bringing it to the public.