The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 12 June 2015

Carl Sagan

A Life in the Cosmos

by William Poundstone

(Let's start with some full disclosure: I was a high school sophomore when Carl Sagan's Cosmos television series first aired. By that point, I was already intrigued by astronomy. Sagan's ability to transmit information and his excitement and love for science and the universe, though, helped to steer me to a career in science (that and a long stint as a docent at the amazing Exploratorium). At least one family member said Not everyone can be Carl Sagan!. But it wasn't really Sagan, the man, that intrigued me about science. It was Sagan (and Frank Oppenheimer), though, who inspired me. I saw Sagan speak live, only once, at a UC Santa Cruz convocation. I went on to write my undergraduate thesis on a topic in planetary science (Saturn's rings), and to publish a version of that thesis in Icarus which had been edited by Dr. Sagan. I would even eventually work for a while at the SETI Institute, founded by Sagan's colleagues and dedicated to research on planets, their chemistry and the chances for life in the universe. Many of my scientific colleagues can say that Sagan influenced their early notions of a career in the sciences. Sagan was a very successful popularizer of science, even if none of us necessarily wanted to be him.)

This 1999 book is one of two biographies of Sagan that appeared shortly after his death in 1996, the other being Keay Davidson's very similarly titled Carl Sagan: A Life. It has been a number of years since I read Davidson's work, so it would be a little unfair to compare these two biographies. I will say it was worth the time to read both of them. We read, of course, of the long arc of one man's life, from formative childhood, with its fascination with science and science fiction, to youthful enthusiasms in the potential for life on Mars, to adult understandings, to mature application of a lifetime of exploration, to his death at 62 from an uncommon blood disease. Sagan's career was not necessarily scientifically stellar, but he was good at galvanizing research in productive and otherwise unexplored directions. He can be credited with essentially inventing the discipline of astrobiology, largely due to his often pestering nature, asking sometimes absurd questions, but evoking interesting discourse and scientific experiment. Which is not to say he wasn't scientifically prolific. His name is on hundreds of scientific papers. His drive toward unconventional research, particularly in the search for extraterrestrial life, was often seen as quirky and out on the fringe. But that is the nature of scientific risk. Sometimes great discoveries demand audacious questioning. At the same time, Sagan well understood the need for skepticism about long-shot scientific results. He could push beyond the point of logic, but he usually returned to a more intellectually sound analysis of his results. Can he be faulted for such enthusiasm for the potential of great discovery? Can he be faulted for passion in a field governed by dispassionate discourse?

And so, we read of Sagan's work on theories of planetary evolution, particularly atmospheres and environments. His drive was to see just how plentiful were the conditions conducive to life. Was life a natural and frequent result of planetary evolution, or was it rare and precious, perhaps even unique to Earth? He made significant contributions to the understanding of the atmospheres of Venus and Mars. And, with the Viking program, was a highly visible researcher working on the first results from the surface of that planet. Poundstone details the everyday work that went into that project. Along the way, we read of Sagan's collaborations with international scientists, developing ideas about the prevalence of extraterrestrial life, and devising programs for its eventual discovery. Because of this notion of finding little green men, he and some of his colleagues were sometimes seen as scientific crackpots.

But that crackpot was also devoted to the notion that the more we all know about science, the less we will live in a fearful world, and the more we will work to the future and betterment of all humankind. To this end, he was a prolific writer of popular articles and books, winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Dragons of Eden. And he developed, in collaboration, the groundbreaking PBS series Cosmos, which would have such a profound affect on aspiring scientists.

Still, Sagan was human. He could be abrupt and off-putting. Many of his friends lost touch with him in seeming conflicts and disagreements. He was married three times and largely estranged from his oldest son. He was wealthy, from his highly profitable books and public speaking, and was thus often ridiculed or resented by his colleagues who worked diligently in obscurity. He was denied tenure at Harvard, and membership in the National Academy of Sciences. His status as professor at Cornell was also challenged by his unavailability and frequent tours for research and publicity.

Late in his career Sagan engaged in the global debate over the possibility of human extinction through nuclear winter. Poundstone's extensive description of the development of the nuclear winter theory and its ensuing political controversy is detailed and relevant to the current political debate of how to respond to global warming. Indeed, nuclear winter was a theoretical construct that ultimately convinced some that the very idea of even limited nuclear war was an absurd component of national defense. Initially, Sagan and his colleagues were prohibited by NASA from mentioning nuclear war in the titles and abstracts of their relevant papers. Climate change is already a very real disaster and still government research into its causes and solutions is politicized to the point that the mere mention of climate change is widely discouraged, particularly in under more conservative administrations. Poundstone presents an argument that key research into nuclear winter depended upon necessarily vague input and thus was not necessarily reliable in its dire predictions for human extinction. He shows us that Sagan, too, demanded scientific rigor, but that he was also deeply invested in the idea that any remote chance of extinction demanded action. In the calculus of risk, nuclear winter was a small chance of the ultimate catastrophe. One could easily imagine, in these days of climate change, Sagan's own research would lead him to be a prominent voice in the argument for action. Poundstone here shows us what was perhaps Sagan's greatest contribution to public and political knowledge, all of it depending upon his career arc in the study of climate conditions on other planets. Sagan could see the slim margin upon which life comes into being, and, rightly so, was horrified that humans choose to blithely toy with the balance.

Poundstone writes:

And so, while this is a biography of one man, the kind of figure that this country always seems to have around, and to need, this is also a story about the nature of scientific work, the dreaming that goes into developing hypotheses, the hard work that goes into finding out if a hypothesis is true, and the eventual work of sharing those successful results with a curious public. The book is very well-written, highly detailed, with lots of enjoyable anecdotes along with the fascinating scientific and political discussion. One man, Dr. Sagan, who is slowly receding into the haze of history and public memory, though he had his impact on the country, the world, young scientists and his times. Recommended.

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See also: [Contact and The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan]
and [Carl Sagan: A Life by Keay Davidson]

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