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Famed scientist's life makes for complex, compelling reading

By Michael Sims

NOVEMBER 8, 1999:  Here's the bottom line about Carl Sagan that not even his critics dispute: He inspired hundreds of thousands of readers and TV viewers (and, finally, moviegoers) with his poetic vision of science both as a path to appreciating the natural wonders of the universe and as a challenging and entertaining enterprise in itself--one of the supreme accomplishments of the human brain.

Practically everything else about Carl Sagan inspires debate. A new biography, Keay Davidson's Carl Sagan: A Life, grapples with these fascinating contradictions while recounting as vividly as a novel the globe-trotting (and cosmos-ranging) adventures of a scientist and educator who became a household name. It is a well-written and thoughtful book, which brings Sagan's contradictory character to life in a graceful and convincing manner.

A science writer for the San Francisco Examiner and co-author of the book Wrinkles in Time, Davidson has a broad understanding of Sagan's varied professional activities--not a small task, considering the range of the late scientist's interests. Davidson writes clearly, with a helpful gift for analogy. Usually, his prose is a pleasure to read, which instantly lifts him above many science journalists. But there is far more than science in Davidson's biography. Indeed, like most lives, Sagan's had plenty of soap opera.

The mystery of personality and character is always the true subject of a biography. Where to begin with Carl Sagan's? His mother, simultaneously domineering and doting, instilled in him both a sense of his own unconquerable abilities and a restless hunger for attention. His five children, from three marriages, tell very different stories about his behavior as a father. Like an arc on a graph, their comments track their father's attempts to mature and deal more responsibly and less autocratically with his family and friends.

Although his contradictory character is fascinating from early childhood on, Sagan becomes more likable over the years and eventually matures into a man striving to come to terms with his shortcomings. His first wife was Lynn Margulis, the now world-famous biologist whose scientific work finally outranked Sagan's own. His second spouse was an artist. Both tell of a self-centered, emotionally immature man whose offhand sexism included the assumption that they would care for him even to the detriment of their own careers. He divorced the second wife (very messily) after falling in love with the woman who became his third and final wife, Ann Druyan.

Sagan isn't the only character who emerges well-rounded and convincing from Davidson's research and writing. Besides a variety of eccentric scientists and shady politicos, CIA types and Hollywood sharks, there is the likable and energetic Ann Druyan. A producer for Nova and co-creator of Cosmos, in time she became co-author of two of Sagan's books, Comet and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. There is no question that Druyan contributed a great deal to Sagan's life. She is credited with humanizing the abstracted, self-centered scientist and publicity hound, with uniting his three families and allowing him to leave the world on far better terms than he might have otherwise.

No one denies that Sagan was a careerist, a self-promoter. But as Davidson points out, at least what he was promoting wasn't merely himself. It was his vision of life and the sheer aesthetic excitement of using the brain for more than a storage place for daily trivia. It didn't hurt, of course, that he was gifted with a brilliant brain of his own, a poetic writing style, striking good looks, and an unforgettable voice.

However, the gifted can focus their talents in all sorts of directions. Sagan chose to explore the way the universe works and to convey the majesty of such an enterprise to the rest of us. He was not a great scientist; apparently, he was interested in too many topics to commit to one. But he was a great educator--in a sense, a great secular evangelist. He gave many people their first real understanding of the search for extraterrestrial life, the greenhouse effect, global warming, nuclear winter, and the complex psychology behind the rising tide of pseudoscientific nonsense.

Most of all, as skeptics and humanists kept saying when Sagan died, and as Davidson demonstrates in this book, Sagan was an ambassador for reason as the best way to understand why things are the way they are. This is no small accomplishment in an era that eagerly promotes abductions by aliens, Bible codes, astrology, psychic hotlines, and giant spaceships toodling along behind Comet Hale-Bopp. Most of the major problems facing humanity--ever-increasing population growth, famine, global warming, depletion of tropical rainforests, the ever-present threat of nuclear war--require scientific as much as political knowledge for responsible action. Sagan knew this. He was unflagging in his efforts to promote critical and responsible thinking about such issues.

The Carl Sagan who emerges from Keay Davidson's biography is the usual jumble of contradictions that practically defines Homo sapiens. But he was an extraordinary human being who did extraordinary things, and he has been well-served in this book. The same cannot be said of another new biography of Sagan. Don't confuse Davidson's volume with William Poundstone's Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos (Henry Holt, $30). While Poundstone is informative and clear in his scientific exposition, he lacks Davidson's thoughtful, measured style and in contrast comes across as slangy, breathless, and sophomoric. Davidson's book is 10 times better.


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