William Poundstone - Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos

Paired with Carl's ever fragile health was a robust drive and energy. Not only did this expedite his recovery, it also manifested itself in a near-mythic resistance to anesthesia. Several incidents defied what experienced physicians thought possible. During the long operation, with his chest opened, Carl came to. He raised up on the operating table. People dropped their instruments; this was like a resurrection. "Fellows," Carl asked his doctors, "can you give me a break here? I have to rest." (p. 300)
I didn't want it to end. I didn't want Carl Sagan to die. I didn't want Poundstone to stop. This is a brilliant biography and should receive strong consideration for a Pulitzer Prize. Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos is lucid, humorous, scientific, and a real page turner. In a nutshell, it is a fascinating book about a fascinating man. My only complaint is that it wasn't long enough. I could have used a thousand pages on Sagan.

I knew quite a bit about Sagan going into this biography but still found previously unknown information on every page. I was completely unaware of some of his behind-the-scenes scientific projects/political maneuvers involving the former Soviet Union. He was more credible in Moscow than perhaps any other American during the cold war. Gorbachev personally told Sagan that the Soviet Union was implementing Sagan's foreign policy. Some, including physicists Roald Sagdeev and Alexei Leonov, gave credit to Carl Sagan as being the person that ended the cold war. Reagan and his fans wouldn't agree, but then again, they didn't agree with Sagan on many things. Carl and Annie were perhaps the only couple to be invited to dinner at the Reagan White House three times and politely refuse each time. The reason? Sagan would have been honest at such a dinner and to do so would have insulted the host.

Carl Sagan lived an incredibly full life between 1934 and 1996. He published numerous books, countless articles and essays (a curriculum vitae running 261 printed pages!); created a movie based on his book Contact; starred in perhaps PBS's most famous series, Cosmos; co-founded SETI, the Planetary Society and CSICOP; and consulted/worked for NASA for decades. He also had three wives, five kids, and numerous relationships that weren't always exactly perfect. This biography is of the "warts and all" variety, but I don't think even Sagan's most loyal and dedicated fans will mind the warts.

One of the more sensational topics is Sagan's use of cannabis. Some of the press and other reports involving Sagan's usage of drugs for inspiration have been blown out of proportion, misinterpreted, or outright false. Poundstone writes

Grinspoon [David Grinspoon's father] affirms that Sagan truly believed he got many of his scientific inspirations under the influence of the drug. After Marihuana Reconsidered appeared, people sent Grinspoon unsolicited gifts of marijuana. One time someone sent a particularly potent batch. "You've got to give that to me," Sagan told Grinspoon, only half-jokingly. "I've got some work to do."

The use of drugs to enhance the creative process is not uncommon in the arts. Writers ranging from Allen Ginsberg to Stephen Sondheim have credited cannabis as inspiriting some of their best work. In the hard sciences, though, this is rare. It is probably fair to assume that the drug could only amplify talents already present in Sagan's makeup, notably his much-commented-upon ability to look at problems from novel perspectives. Sagan used the high for generating "crazy" ideas, then sober reason for skeptically examining and winnowing. Of course, scientific ideas are further winnowed by their ability to account for evidence better than competing theories. A verified hypothesis is independent of its source. (p. 103)

Poundstone also discusses the history of the "nuclear winter" theory that Sagan played a part in developing and a huge role in disseminating to the masses. The full story is known by few. Far too many people continue to think that the theory holds/held no water after one computer module came up with different results (results that didn't deny a significant decrease in temperature--just not as large a drop as Sagan believed). The truth likely lies in the middle--as subsequent experiments showed--but no one wanted to hear about the subject any more.

Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos also includes many of the key elements in the history of the fields of exobiology and extraterrestrial biology. Sagan was a pioneer in the field who received criticism from some other scientists who deal with areas of science that have actual specimens to work with (as opposed to ET biology which is speculative). Speculation was something Sagan didn't shy away from. Fortunately, and unlike some others, he was able to recognize his speculations for what they were. From this biography it seemed to me that Sagan grew less speculative--and more skeptical--as he grew older. He remained an optimist who delighted in far reaching, big ideas until his death though.

Again, the book is riveting from cover to cover. Carl's dealings with other science popularizers such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke are also detailed. I can't recommend this book highly enough. Whether you are a Sagan fanatic, hater, or just someone who wants to find out about the man, you will not go wrong with Poundstone's account. If anyone has read the other biographies on Sagan, too, and would like to compare the four, please send me an email or leave a post detailing the differences in the forum.

from the publisher:
The first biography of the best-known scientist of his generation and the author of the best-seller Cosmos.

In this, the first full-scale examination of the life of Carl Sagan, award-winning science writer William Poundstone details the transformation of a bookish young astronomer obsessed with life on other worlds into science's first authentic media superstar. As a fixture on television and a bestselling author, Sagan became instantly recognizable. To people around the world, he offered entrée into the mysteries of the cosmos and of science in general. To much of the scientific community, though, he was something of a pariah, a brazen publicity seeker who cared more about his image and his fortune than the advancement of science.

Poundstone reveals the seldom-discussed aspects of Sagan's life, the legitimate and important work of his early scientific career, the almost obsessive capacity to take on endless projects, the multiple marriages and fractured tumultuous personal life-all essential elements of this complicated and extraordinary man, truly the first and most famous scientist of the media age.

William Poundstone has been twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Among his seven books are Prisoner's Dilemma and Big Secrets. He has also written extensively for network television and major magazines. He lives in Los Angeles.

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