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Carl Sagan: A Life Hardcover – 20 Sep 1999


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: John Wiley & Sons; First Printing edition (20 Sep 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0471252867
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471252863
  • Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 4.6 x 24.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,621,397 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Amazon Review

The business and science publisher John Wiley isn't famous for its biographies, but they've landed a corker with Keay Davidson's life of Carl Sagan, science's greatest showman of recent years, the man who first concieved of "nuclear winter" and who shaped the attitudes of a generation with his groundbreaking TV science series Cosmos.

Sagan stands at the cusp where the technocratic and militaristic ambitions of the 50s meet the ecology movement. Keay Davidson treads a difficult middle course with gusto: Sagan wanted nothing less than to refashion astronomy and the life sciences in the image of his own imagination. Sagan believed that where life can in principle arise it always will, that many more worlds are habitable by some form of life than we imagine, and that evolution favours wild diversity. Not surprisingly it was Sagan's taste for science fiction that shaped his philosophy--a literature that accords with Sagan's own liberal education by building a speculative bridge between CP Snow's "two cultures": the sciences and the humanities.

Sagan was in many ways not a nice man. Nor was he by any means the best scientist. Davidson pulls no punches but this remains a generous and humane portrait. Davidson's journalist style is not top-flight, but he handles a vast amount of often first-hand research with skill and economy. In a market flooded with wordy and massive "first volumes" of never-to-be-finished lives Carl Sagan is a breath of fresh air from an unlikely source. --Simon Ings

Review

"Davidson writes superbly, and this biography is extremely hard to put down. Seventy pages of notes, a detailed biography, and a thorough index also makes this book an extremely useful guide to the history of space science." (The Observatory, August 2000)

"...an extremely useful guide to the history of space science." (The Observatory, August 2000)

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First Sentence
ALL HIS LIFE, Carl Sagan was troubled by grand dichotomies-between reason and irrationalism, between wonder and skepticism. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By John Dexter on 21 Feb 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As early as the third page (Preface p.viii), Keay Davidson cautions his readers of the dangers of 'scrutinizing Sagan's life in detail'. Fortunately, like Davidson, I found myself liking and respecting Carl Sagan more at the end of this book rather than less but sadly, the same cannot be said of my feelings for the author.

The problem with this biography is that it is little more than a salacious exposé of Sagan's oft-cited character flaws rather than a balanced account of his life and (significant) achievements. Davidson paints Sagan as a social and professional climber who, in the gratuitous pursuit of celebrity, allowed his ambition to sour marriages, professional collaborations, and friendships alike.

As evidence of the 'serious flaws' involving his personal relationships (p.viii), Davidson cites Sagan's three marriages and throughout the book, holds Sagan unilaterally responsible for the breakdown of the first two. Conversely, Davidson's treatment of Lynn Margulis (Sagan's first wife) is far less judgemental despite her being divorced exactly the same number of times as her first husband (p.394)! This lack of even-handedness pervades Davidson's work; for instance, whilst he is content to infer that Sagan's ambition was a corrosive vice, Margulis' professional aspirations are characterised as enviable virtues (p.71). The biographer even lampoons his subject's curriculum vitae (p.383), seemingly dismissive of Sagan's contributions to over six-hundred scientific papers, twenty popular science books, a novel, a major television series, and a Hollywood film. Doubtless there were some trivial entries in Sagan's resume, but is that not true of most CV?
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 22 Sep 2000
Format: Paperback
What an interesting book! There's a lot in here that might disturb the die-hard Carl Sagan fan, especially the bits where Carl is portrayed as having such an intense interest in his career that he forgets to devote enough attention to his family.
It's a superb read though - if you want to find out more about the man who popularised science for millions of people, then this is the book, warts and all.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I have never been one to see my heroes as Whiter-than-white. And in any good, balanced biography there is always going to be many "man behind the mask" revelations.
Unfortunately, I cannot reasonably call this a "balanced" biography. "Unintended Hatchet Job" may be more of an apt description. Page after page I look forward to reading Sagan's accomplishments, his successes and positive traits. Yet page after page we are treated to criticism after criticism (by those interviewed rather than the author I must add) to effect that with a dull weariness you know that is probably coming next. Even his family do not escape - Was there any reason to waste a paragraph describing an incident between Sagan's mother and Isaac Asimov for example?
The author has certainly done a huge amount of research and really got under the skin of his subject. Its just a shame he is likely to get under the reader's skin too. A point in question is that the continual finger pointing that Sagan was more of a showman than scientist. Well, yes, he was a great showman, and no doubt there were better scientists. But please, shouldn't Sagan's showmanship be celebrated? He brought Science to the masses. How he did that is the biography I want to read.
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By gibson on 6 July 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
HEAVY READING AT TIMES
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 50 reviews
43 of 46 people found the following review helpful
Considers both biographies of Sagan... 30 July 2000
By John Rummel - Published on Amazon.com
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.
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.
43 of 49 people found the following review helpful
The Art of Carl Sagan 20 Oct 2002
By Mathew Titus - Published on Amazon.com
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.
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.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Too much personal material for my tastes 29 July 2001
By Charles Ashbacher - Published on Amazon.com
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. In this sense, he also mirrors the changes that were moving through society. As it became more socially acceptable for women to pursue careers, there was a corresponding movement for men to do the basic tasks like change diapers. In this way, he was much more mainstream than the author gives him credit for.
Was Sagan a great scientist? Probably not, although he was clearly a very good one. His everlasting contribution will be the awareness and interest he generated among the public. So many of those who were critical of him owed their very jobs and careers to the public funding that probably would not have been available if it had not been for him. His ability to capture and control the stage at a time when the public showed little interest in space exploration made him a media star, one of only two scientists to reach celebrity status. The other was of course Einstein, but there simply was not the competition for celebrity status in Einstein�s time as there was in Sagan�s. A great deal of time is also spent describing the jealousies that were generated due to Sagan�s success. It was interesting at first, but after some time it began to drag. My reason for reading the book was to learn about his ideas and accomplishments, not learn about the fellow scientists who were unhappy with his style and approach. The book would have been much better with less description of these petty conflicts.
Carl Sagan changed the world in many ways, almost all of which were positive. He helped preserve funding for the space program at a time when only governments can pay for it. He was instrumental in creating a private organization for space research and through his popular books, made a whole generation think about things in a different way. No one really has any idea what the final verdict will be concerning exobiology, a field he helped found. But if a signal is ever discovered from another world, he will go down in history as one of the greatest visionaries of science. We will not know the scientific consequences of his life for another ten years or so. In this book, you learn about his life, both the personal and professional. I would have preferred less about the personal, especially when the author attempts to interpret the reasons for it, and why he was married three times. Sagan was a genius, and it is always trecherous to explain the actions of someone with a mind of that caliber.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Complete, balanced account of a famous human scientist 23 Oct 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
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.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Somewhere Between Four and Five 16 Nov 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
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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