Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos

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9780805057676: Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos

In this compelling 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. The instantly recognizable Sagan, a fixture on television and a bestselling author, offered the layperson entry into the mysteries of the cosmos and of science in general. To much of the scientific community, however, he was 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, and the multiple marriages and fractured personal life, in what The New Yorker called an "evenhanded guide" to a great man's career.

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Review:

Science writer William Poundstone (and biographer of game-theory guru John von Neumann) begins this book of deftly strung anecdotes from the life of pop-science demigod Carl Sagan with the following anecdote: four-year-old Carl, a Jewish kid growing up near the Jersey shore, rides piggyback on his dad's shoulders into the 1939 World's Fair and the "World of Tomorrow." Surrounded by mocked-up "rocketports," GM's "Futurama," and the promise of outlandish technology to come, it's easy to imagine the impact on this little guy who was to become one of our century's most visionary and visible scientists. A childhood friend tells Poundstone that "from an early age Carl was seized with the fabulous mission of searching for life on other worlds," a quest that would dominate his entire professional career.

Poundstone recounts how this quest drove the immensely intelligent, ambitious, and charismatic Sagan, from his discovery of Arthur C. Clarke to his predictable adolescent chemistry-set accidents to his colorful academic career and professional work on the Viking and Voyager missions, nuclear disarmament, the award-winning Cosmos, and Robert Zemeckis' Contact. What recommends this biography most, though, isn't its completeness but its style: Poundstone has divided the 500-plus-page book into over 200 easily digestible, addictive little sections, each an entertaining or illuminating (or, often, laugh-out-loud) anecdote from Sagan's life, with titles like "Pornography in Space," "Muskrats, Drunkards, Extraterrestrials," and "Sagan Versus Apple Computer." (The in-house name for the mid-range PowerMac 7100 was "Carl Sagan," the joke being that it would make Apple "billions and billions." But forced to change it by Sagan, Apple switched to "BHA," later revealed to stand for "Butt-Head Astronomer"--Sagan sued for libel.) --Paul Hughes

About the Author:

William Poundstone has been nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. Among his seven books are The Recursive Universe, Labyrinths of Reason, and Big Secrets. He has also written extensively for network television and major magazines. He lives in Los Angeles.

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