Carl Sagan: A Life Hardcover – 31 Aug 2000
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"Davidson gets underneath the skin to expose the personal, emotional and intimate details of Sagan′s life, showing him both as a scientist, husband, lover and father. Brilliant." (Yorkshire Post, 9th November 2000)
"This biography is authoritative, interesting and entertaining. Every space enthusiast should read it." (Spaceflight, November 2001)
"This biography is authoritative, interesting and entertaining. Every space enthusiast should read it." (Spaceflight, November 2001) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
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?Read more ›
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.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
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.