The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 9 February 2000

Carl Sagan

A Life

by Keay Davidson

Carl Sagan was a frustratingly brilliant, arrogant yet compassionate, giving yet shamelessly self-promoting scientist. He invoked strong opinions in everyone who knew him and many who didn't, often because of his own strong opinions. He was a driven man, whose whole life was given over to the science of understanding life in the universe. This, and his ability to convey these ideas to a mass audience (through award-winning books and the television series Cosmos) made him a towering figure in popular culture. This book is one of two biographies of Sagan that appeared very shortly after his death in 1996 (The other being William Poundstone's very similarly titled Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos). Keay Davidson admits to being a great admirer of Sagan. Almost in an effort to belay criticism for admiring such a flawed man, Davidson goes far toward detailing the problems Sagan had in interpersonal relationships (three wives and a string of frustrated ex-friends), perhaps to a fault. Nevertheless, Sagan was a man in a hurry. He was obsessed with his purpose. The book starts with his childhood fascination with science-fiction, and the speculative character this gave to Sagan's science. Davidson goes into satisfying detail about Sagan's many careers, his involvement with planetary and stellar exploration, science popularization, and anti-nuclear activism. In a chapter entitled The Value of L, for example, referring to the life span of a technological civilization, Davidson puts forth a compelling re-telling of the mid-80s debate over nuclear winter. Perhaps Sagan's most significant contribution to mankind, driven initially by its relevance to the survival of extraterrestrial species, was his advocacy of this hypothesis and what it means for humanity. Davidson goes on to detail Sagan's final opus, the movie Contact, and very movingly relate Sagan's illness and death.

The book deserves a much longer review than we will give it here. It suffers occasionally from the need for editing. Davidson's writing is somewhat repetitive, as if each chapter, or sub-chapter, were written as a seperate essay. His sources, though, are extensive, with a few notable exceptions. And though the story lacks details of Sagan's personal side, this may only be because Sagan's whole life was his work. Whatever the reader feels about this often controversial, yet enormously well-known, man, this book does a good job describing his remarkable arc through life.

[Mail John][To List]

See also: [Contact and The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan]
and [Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos by William Poundstone]

[Other Biography]