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Carl Sagan: A Life in Science [Hardcover]

William Poundstone
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 473 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt & Company Inc (4 Nov 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805057668
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805057669
  • Product Dimensions: 24.2 x 16.3 x 3.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,362,822 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Synopsis

Chronicles the astronomer's rise to scientific celebrity, describing his gift of enthusiastic communication and his conflicts with the academic establishment.

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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars interesting 1 Mar 2001
Format:Paperback
The book is about a man, a scientist and a personality known from the TV and books. We get a chance to view behind all these and see the family man and husband too. Interesting reading.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  26 reviews
57 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Bio That Strives to Ring True 31 Oct 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Many of us who knew Carl Sagan understood how he compartmentalized his complex life. Few had an inkling how rich, surprising, and often tragic it was; how Sagan faced down death;how he hurt and cut off many and helped more.
For the reader, while rewarding to see that Sagan was a driven, and polymathic person (as a few of us knew well), it is also shocking and even distressing to see details of Sagan's private life up for ultimate scrutiny. In fairness, Poundstone was doing his job. In comparison, Davidson's competing bio of Sagan (also read by this reviewer)is a revolting escapade into several episodes of spiteful, foul-mouth invective, and marijuana haze, additionally peppered with unfortunate inaccuracies. I found no statements in error in Poundstone's book, although more than a few for which I could disagree upon his interpretation.
Superb portions in this bio abound; in fact, the decription of Viking is the best I have seen; Poundstone took me back.
A disappointment: Sagan's secretary, Shirley Arden, should have been front and center here, but shows up as a minor allusion. Shirley is a miracle worker, and for anyone interested in Sagan, it is salient to note her key role of support, editorial acumen, organizational savvy, surrogate mothering, and many other lovely attributes in making Carl Sagan a mensch.
A bittersweet book of a remarkable life,all too short. Sagan is missed but Poundstone helps make sure he will not be forgotten.
29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Detailed, objective, scientifically savvy 27 April 2000
By E. Uthman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I just finished the this biography the other night, having read it right after Keay Davidson's competing book. I admit I had to wipe away tears at the end of each.
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.
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The better of two biographies of Sagan 30 July 2000
By John Rummel - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Carl Sagan : A Life in the Cosmos by William Poundstone; (see also my review at Carl Sagan : A Life by Keay Davidson - 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.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sagan Bio's: Poundstone compared to Davidson 27 Feb 2001
By Daniel B. Caton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Quick-name a scientist!. Was your answer Carl Sagan? It probably was-no other person has brought so much science to the public. His loss to a rare disease four years ago left a void still unfilled by anyone else. His life in science and the workings of science itself are worthy of exploration by any educated person, and two biographies that have appeared over the last year serve that purpose well.
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.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Carl Sagan: A very Human being 12 Feb 2002
By Dr W. Sumner Davis - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I have read everything that Carl Sagan has ever written. I have also read biographies by other writers, and had some conversations about what kind of man Carl Sagan really was. Behind the hype and the smile lived a lonely man-- a man who cared too much about the world, yet it distracted him from the chance he had to bond with his eldest children. This book touches on some of the lesser known facts and issues about Carl Sagan. His loves and his losses; his triumphs and his losses. By the time the reader is finished this well written and, I believe, even handed account of one of modern days greatest scientists, he or she will have learned a great deal about the man behind COSMOS, behind the Dragons, and behind CONTACT. And they will have learned that in many ways, Carl Sagan was just a man, for better or worse-- yet we will not see his kind again soon. I do remember where I was and what I was doing when JFK was shot in Dallas. I also remember where I was and what I was doing when I learned that Dr. Sagan had passed away. I must admit, and without any remorse, I shed a few tears on both occasions.
I cannot recommend this book enough to the reader who wishes to know the real man behind the force that was and is Carl Sagan.
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