Dr. Fred Bortz

Carl Sagan: A Life by Keay Davidson

(Wiley, 1999)

Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos by William Poundstone

(Henry Holt, 1999)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Carl Sagan: Controversial Visionary
by Fred Bortz

"He's a nut!"

I smiled as the airport security guard, riffling through the pages of my review copy of Keay Davidson's new biography, passed swift judgment on Carl Sagan. If he expected to find something explosive or illegal between the pages of the book I carried through the metal detector, he was disappointed. Had he taken the time to read those pages, however, he would have taken notice. The Davidson book and another soon-to-be-released Sagan biography by William Poundstone are certain to ignite a new round of controversy about Sagan, who died in December 1996, comparable in intensity to the contention that swirled about him during his 62-year lifetime.

That an airport security guard in Pittsburgh would recognize the face and name of a deceased astronomy professor from an Ivy League university speaks volumes about the market for these biographies. That the guard -- or anyone else who knew that name and face -- would express a clear, unequivocal view of Sagan is no surprise.

Sagan, the pre-eminent popularizer of science of his time, is a study in contrasts. Both admirers and detractors agree that he was brilliant, creative, literate, driven, and passionate about what he saw as truth. Yet even those who loved him most understand that he could seem pompous and arrogant. Sagan was certain of his genius, yet demanding of admiration.

Unlike most academics, who spend their careers plumbing narrow intellectual tributaries and publishing their findings as cryptic papers in journals for the scientific elite, Sagan exuberantly splashed through the entire cosmic ocean, sharing both discovery and speculation with everyone. He was the kid who dashed and shouted along the beach, while they carefully crafted sand castles in the coves. No wonder so many colleagues resented his fame -- even when his celebrity brought public support to their work.

Sagan would have been pleased to see not one but two definitive biographies appearing at the same time. For a scientist, the best approach to understanding a result is to replicate the study in a different laboratory, perhaps with different instruments.

Both Davidson and Poundstone researched their subject carefully, interviewing colleagues, associates, and adversaries; two of Sagan's three wives, his sister, and his three adult sons; friends and acquaintances from his youth and his closest adult friends, most notably Lester Grinspoon, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and a leading advocate for decriminalization of marijuana. The result is a great deal of overlap between the two books, including many of the same intriguing and revealing anecdotes.

One story in both books, certain to grab the most headlines, is the revelation that Sagan was the unidentified "Mr. X" in Grinspoon's landmark 1971 book, Marihuana Reconsidered. Sagan's seven-page essay in that book celebrates the pleasures and benefits of the weed. Mr. X claims to have hit upon his most creative scientific ideas while "high," which he then would develop analytically when sober. Both authors (see sidebar) understood the possibility that this revelation would dominate the news about their biographies, but they recognized that it was too important an aspect of Sagan's life to omit.

Yet Davidson and Poundstone are very different instruments, indeed. Readers seeking to know Sagan through his work will find Davidson's book more to their liking. Although both books discuss Sagan's most important scientific and literary contributions, Davidson presents a more complete picture of both the science and Sagan's approach to his subject matter. Particularly fascinating is his behind-the-scenes look at the development of the movie Contact, drawn from transcripts of the production meetings.

Poundstone, in contrast, focuses more sharply on Sagan's personal relationships. Though both authors can legitimately claim to present the Sagan personality "warts and all," it is Poundstone who shows more clearly both the smooth and prickly aspects of a very complex individual. Davidson's approach is to show the external view of a brilliant academic careerist and savvy celebrity, while not neglecting the intellectual, physical, and emotional passions that drove him internally.

Despite Davidson's more scientific approach to content, scientifically inclined readers may prefer Poundstone's style. Davidson tends to state conclusions, then support them with evidence, while Poundstone is more subtle, allowing readers to form their own judgments from a well-organized body of information. For example, Davidson discusses Sagan's relationship with his powerful and brilliant but also scheming and neurotic mother, Rachel, in almost Freudian terms. Poundstone is more matter-of-fact about Rachel, letting readers see her through the eyes of his research sources.

Though both authors clearly admire Sagan, Davidson's bias is more open from the beginning. In the end, when he asks, "What is a visionary?", readers know that the answer is someone with the courage, passion, and vision of Carl Sagan. His book is for Sagan admirers, especially those who savored every phoneme of every "BILL-yuns" of Sagan's narration of every episode of PBS television's Cosmos series. On the other hand, the airport guard and those who prefer a more gossipy approach to biography will prefer Poundstone.

Both books were intended to be the definitive biography of Sagan, but both (though sizable) are limited by length and by their authors' individual, idiosyncratic visions. Just as a person needs two eyes to see the world in three dimensions, a reader needs at least two biographies to discover the many facets of Carl Sagan: a fascinating and controversial scientist, a brilliant and provocative author, a celebrity and political activist, and a flawed but courageous human being.

About the author: Fred Bortz is a Ph.D. physicist and freelance writer, specializing in science and technology for young readers. His interview-based book, To the Young Scientist: Reflections on Doing and Living Science (Franklin Watts, 1997), profiles a distinguished group of living U.S. scientists for readers age 12-up. In Bortz's research file from that book is a signed letter from Carl Sagan, written in the same month that Sagan's final illness was diagnosed, regretfully but courteously declining to participate in the project.

Sidebar 1: The Many Facets of Carl Sagan
Sagan the Scientist: As a founder of The Planetary Society and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University, Carl Sagan's scientific work focused on the question of life elsewhere in the Solar System and in planetary systems of other stars. Philosophically, he demanded allegiance to the truth as revealed by scientific observation, yet he encouraged brash speculation as an important avenue for discovery. Thus he was on one hand a leading advocate for SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and on the other the skeptical voice who proclaimed, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

Although Sagan's most famous popular works, Cosmos and Contact, looked outward to the Universe, he spoke and wrote most brilliantly about life on Earth, which he described in the title of one of his books as a Pale Blue Dot in vast space. His most significant scientific research, his University of Chicago doctoral thesis, included a discussion of a runaway greenhouse effect that had transformed Venus from potentially habitable to intensely hot. Beginning a pattern that would continue throughout his career, Sagan extrapolated from those results to the implications for life on Earth, stirring a controversy about global warming that continues four decades later.

Sagan the Celebrity: Sagan was a "natural" for television and quickly won a following among viewers of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show for his comfortable style and clear discussion of space exploration. His appearance as the distinctive host of the PBS television series Cosmos gained him celebrity status. Soon in addition to his appearances with Carson, he became the good-natured recipient of a Carson parody. "Billions and Billions," a phrase that only Carson's faux-Sagan had ever uttered, soon became part of his public image. After years of steadfast refusal to speak the words, he finally chose them as the title of his final book. "(F)or the record," he wrote, "here goes: Billions and billions." The readers could almost hear his unique inflection of the word -- twice.

Before Cosmos, which also spun off a best-selling book, Sagan had already won literary acclaim, the Pulitzer Prize for Dragons of Eden, a look at the evolution of the human brain and human thinking. Later he was to write a science fiction novel and movie, Contact, which he adapted as a motion picture with his third wife and literary collaborator, Ann Druyan, and producer Linda Obst. It appeared, to modest success, not long after his death.

Sagan's celebrity led to great controversy, especially among academic scientists. He was on the short list for nomination but was rejected in a contentious 1992 meeting of the National Academy of Science. Two years later, he was awarded a Public Welfare Medal by the same group.

Sagan the Political Activist: Politically liberal and active, Sagan was arrested for participation in an anti-war protest during the Vietnam era. At the height of the Cold War, he also deliberately ignored the "extraordinary claims" test for evidence when a mathematical climate model suggested that a substantial nuclear exchange could upset the delicate balance of life on Earth. Though he was the last of five authors -- the "S" of the "TTAPS" report as the research paper came to be known -- he used his celebrity and writing "pulpit" to take the lead in warning the world about "Nuclear Winter." Although the military on both sides argued that such a war, though devastating, could be "won," TTAPS said it was global suicide -- the end of civilization if not all of human life.

Sagan knew that the mathematical models in TTAPS had wide margins for error, leaving open the possibility that humanity might survive such a conflagration. Still, TTAPS made it difficult for people to argue in favor of the arms race when the consequences of their estimates being wrong were so dire. Sagan had a point. The best science can only predict a range of outcomes. If that range includes catastrophe, even at a low level of probability, political decisions must take that probability into account.

Sagan and Family Life: In his first two marriages, Sagan was far from a paragon as husband and father. His first wife, Lynn Alexander, now Lynn Margulies, struggled to handle all the domestic duties, satisfy her husband's insatiable need for attention, and raise their two sons while pursuing her own scientific career. She made a commitment to leave as soon as her second son could walk, and she did. Many years later, as a renowned biologist, member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a minor celebrity in her own right, Margulies wrote a letter to her ex-husband, expressing her distress at his 1992 rejection. Davidson quotes that letter in his book, almost in its entirety.

Sagan's second wife and mother of his third son was artist Linda Salzman. She worked with Sagan on the drawings and recorded music that NASA mounted on spacecraft that are now headed toward interstellar space. Her good friend Ann Druyan was engaged at that time to then-Rolling Stone writer Timothy Ferris, who became a good friend to Sagan. Druyan and Sagan felt a growing attraction that soon reached cosmic proportions. Even before they had kissed, they vowed to marry. Salzman was devastated and did not speak to either of Sagan's biographers; two decades was not sufficient time to heal her wounds. Ferris, on the other hand, remained an important friend to Sagan and Druyan.

"The Annie effect" as both biographers described it, softened Sagan. He became a more attentive son to his elderly parents in their final years, a more thoughtful and understanding friend, and eventually an attentive father to two small children, a daughter and a son, in marked contrast to his strained relationships with his grown sons. Those sons, and even Margulies, praise Druyan for her humanizing influence on Sagan.

Sidebar 2: The Cannabis Question
What's an author to do? You set out to write a biography about a public figure you admire, one whose allegiance to truth was legendary. You may have heard rumblings about marijuana, but it probably isn't anything worth mentioning. Then you open a closet, and out jumps a skeleton, smoking a joint and smiling. For twenty years, his name was "Mr. X." Now it's Carl Sagan, and you have to discuss it. No excuses allowed -- Sagan would never have permitted it.

You have only one choice: lay out the truth straightforwardly. Sagan may have rationalized to himself about the benefits of marijuana, but you can't rationalize to your readers. You know that in the end, your work -- just as Sagan's -- speaks for itself.

Among other e-mail queries, we posed The Cannabis Question to both Davidson and Poundstone, raising the issue of sensationalism and asking whether the revelation might negatively influence the readers' view of Sagan's intellectual integrity. This is how they answered. Davidson: "Carl was a titanic figure of our time, a man who inspired millions -- including me; I became a science writer in part because of his writings. Carl also showed great courage in the face of an immense evil, the American and Soviet nuclear weapons establishments, at a time -- the 1980s -- when all too many powerful people stayed silent. Consequently, I am sure that people will put his marijuana use in the proper perspective. Rightly or wrongly, he felt it was an important source of inspiration and creative insight. And Winston Churchill's love of drink does not diminish HIS accomplishments by one iota."

Poundstone: "I never considered 'censoring' or downplaying the marijuana issue. It seems to me that a serious biography has to include something like that. Sagan's use of the drug was a significant part of his private life. Anne Druyan (Sagan's wife, who read the manuscript and had no objection to including the 'Mr. X' material) said that marijuana was like a 'sacrament' to Carl. It wasn't something that he was ashamed of, and I imagine he intended the 'Mr. X' account to come out eventually. Sagan's example as marijuana user turned ought to be particularly influential to his friend, Dr. Lester Grinspoon, who is now perhaps the foremost proponent of the drug's legalization. So cannabis is part of Sagan story, and by no means just at the level of personal trivia.

"That said, I was aware that a so-called sensational angle can skew the reception of a book. I discussed these concerns with Druyan, Grinspoon, and my publishers. I think Henry Holt and Co. has handled it quite well.... Whether you approve of the drug or not, I think the discussion of Sagan's experiences makes a lot more sense when you can encounter it in the context of what else was going on in Carl's life.

"For the record, I don't think it affects Sagan's 'intellectual integrity' one bit. I once wrote a book about mathematician John von Neumann, who was said to down a pint of rye whiskey at a sitting, before climbing into his car. No one says von Neumann's theorems can't be trusted."