Cover image for Carl Sagan : a life
Carl Sagan : a life
Davidson, Keay.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Wiley, [1999]

Physical Description:
xx, 540 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QB36.S15 D38 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
QB36.S15 D38 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
QB36.S15 D38 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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Carl Sagan, who died in December 1996, is one of the few scientists whose name has become a household word all around the globe. The first man to recognise and name the greenhouse effect, Sagan was a force behind the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Author Notes

Keay Davidson is the science writer for the San Francisco Examiner. He has won the two top awards in American science journalism: the American Association for the Advancement of Science-Westinghouse Prize and the National Association of Science Writers' Science in Society award. His articles have appeared in many magazines, including National Geographic, New Scientist, Sky and Telescope, and Mother Jones, and his books include the internationally acclaimed Wrinkles in Time (with George Smoot). He is a major contributor of biographical essays on scientists and scholars to Oxford University Press's multivolume American National Biography.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Nosed out in the race of biographies by William Poundstone (Carl Sagan [BKL S 1 99]), Davidson nevertheless turns in a creditable portrait. Behind Sagan's amiable public image, people in private had more than a few complaints about him. Davidson unavoidably faces those unpleasant aspects of Sagan's personality--neglect of sons, his two divorces, his congenital brusqueness--but works them in as the course of chronology requires. Davidson dwells more on the intellectually precocious teenager, his imagination inflamed by UFOs and sci-fi stories, who by his twenties had established himself in academe. After Harvard denied him tenure, Cornell University gladly hired Sagan, from which base Johnny Carson summoned him to The Tonight Show, boosting Sagan into the celebrity orbit. That did not always sit well with fellow space scientists; for example, Sagan's mistake with Voyager, marking the craft with an incorrect isotope of uranium, making it impossible for an alien being to know when it was launched. Sagan is presented in such a way that readers can decide whether to view him admirably or with a dose of skepticism. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

In a superbly researched biography of one of the 20the century's most influential yet controversial scientists, Davidson (coauthor, Wrinkles in Time) leaves no doubt about where he feels his subject stands. "What is a visionary?" he asks in the closing chapter. "Carl Sagan measured time in eons and space in light years; he maintained an interplanetary perspective." Though many of Davidson's anecdotes echo those in William Poundstone's Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos (reviewed above), he actively guides readers to conclusions, where Poundstone merely lays out the facts. Though not avoiding Sagan's many failings as a person, Davidson never allows his readers to lose sight of the grand visions, brilliant insights and brash speculations that inspired and educated Sagan's audiences. The book is at its strongest when it shows the inner Sagan through his most influential works: the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dragons of Eden; the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning television series Cosmos; his SF novel Contact; and his scientific publications about the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus, the windblown dust responsible for "waves of darkening" on Mars and the threat of "nuclear winter" after a limited nuclear war on earth. The volume is weakest when, instead of holding Sagan responsible for his sometimes arrogant behavior, it offers excuses from pop psychology. Though nonscientific readers may find Davidson's biography sufficient, naturally skeptical scientific readers may find its conclusions too firm for comfort. They should read Poundstone first, then turn to Davidson to complete the picture. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Both of these books portray astronomer Carl Sagan as a man of immense paradoxes. A charismatic public persona, he could be arrogant and demanding in his personal life. Fiercely amibitious, he still had a powerful sense of civic duty. An outspoken defender of scientific methods, he was also a UFO enthusiast and obsessed with the possibility of extraterrestrial life. In some ways, each of these books represents a different side of the man. First, the similarities. Both authors are respected science popularizers. Both books are quite substantial, relying to a large degree on interviews with those who knew Sagan. Thus, there is considerable overlap between themÄperhaps as much as 80 percent. Of the remaining, about 15 percent of Poundstone is totally unique material. His is the more exhaustive and detailed account, especially when discussing Sagan's original scientific work and influences. What Davidson may lack comparatively in content is more than made up for in style, though. While Poundstone plods in places, Davidson is lively, literary, and sometimes refreshingly speculative. Poundstone's version comes closer to being definitive and will probably have a longer shelf life, but Davidson's is more fun to read. Overall, Davidson's version seems truer to its subject, for with Sagan science and showmanship were inseparable. Let's split the difference and suggest that Poundstone's version is more appropriate for academic libraries, while Davidson's may find a larger audience in public libraries.ÄGregg Sapp, Univ. of Miami Lib., Coral Gables (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Science reporter Davidson has written a well-researched and in-depth study of Sagan as a person, a scientist, a science educator, and a spokesperson for a rational view of the universe. He discusses the dreams and aspirations that drove Sagan, and the personal interactions and weaknesses that led to his early failures in marriage and produced friction between him and professional colleagues. The addition of photos from different periods of his life and intimate details of his family enhances the three-dimensional portrayal of this controversial figure. Sagan's weaknesses are presented without excuses as Davidson explores Sagan's political naivete and the growing idiosyncratic, narcissistic tendencies that overtook him in his reign as a celebrity, but the overall impression the reader receives is favorable. After he had finished his research for the book, the author put it this way: "... I not only still like him, but respect him more than ever; his personal foibles are not atypical of ambitious males, and are far outweighed by his virtues. Because he lived, the world is a better place." Highly recommended for all levels of adult readers. P. R. Douville; emeritus, Central Connecticut State University

Table of Contents

Prefacep. xi
Acknowledgmentsp. xvii
1 Brooklynp. 1
2 Chicagop. 35
3 The Dungeonp. 53
4 High Groundp. 83
5 Californiap. 109
6 Harvardp. 136
7 Mars and Mannap. 167
8 Mr. Xp. 208
9 Gods Like Menp. 236
10 The Shadow Linep. 260
11 The Dragons of Edenp. 283
12 Anniep. 300
13 Cosmosp. 318
14 Contactp. 341
15 The Value of Lp. 354
16 Look Back, Look Backp. 381
17 Hollywoodp. 399
18 The Night Freightp. 412
Notesp. 431
Bibliographyp. 501
Indexp. 521