Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos

Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos

by William Poundstone

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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.


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 less 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.

Editorial Reviews

Philip Morrison
Poundstone, a science writer from Los Angeles, is [close] to the man and his family...careful in details, and a friend to optimistic science.
Scientific American
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
It is impossible to be neutral about Carl Sagan (1934-1996). Though supporters and detractors agree that he was one of the most brilliant and influential scientists of the 20th century, they argue about the ways he handled his gifts, fame and prominence. Poundstone (Prisoner's Dilemma; Big Secrets) does nothing to reconcile these disparities. Instead, he lays out the details of Sagan's life and work, revealing why some people idolized him and others disdained him. Sagan's overwhelming need for love and attention destroyed his first marriage to Lynn Margulis, Poundstone explains. Decades later, Margulis remains ambivalent, admiring Sagan the public figure but not the man. Second wife Linda Salzman could neither forgive Sagan nor understand his betrayal when he and their friend Ann Druyan announced that they were profoundly in love and planned to marry. Salzman is conspicuously missing from Poundstone's list of acknowledgments, just as Sagan's alienated best friend, Lester Grinspoon, was conspicuously absent--so reports Poundstone--from Sagan's deathbed. Sagan's scientific and public life is best known for its central quest and mission: searching for extraterrestrial life and sharing his love of science with the world. The so-far fruitless quest for ET continues, but Sagan's mission succeeded beyond all expectations. Because his greatest allegiance was to truth, Sagan would probably like this book. It tells readers why he chose to warn the world about "nuclear winter" despite weaknesses in the theory, and it includes the influence of marijuana highs on his work. Poundstone does not draw conclusions, but presents the evidence of Sagan's life and allows readers to develop their own theories of what that life might mean to their own. 16 b&w photos. Agent, John Brockman. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Both of these books portray astronomer Carl Sagan as a man of immense paradoxes. A charismatic public persona, he could be arrogant and demanding in his personal life. Fiercely amibitious, he still had a powerful sense of civic duty. An outspoken defender of scientific methods, he was also a UFO enthusiast and obsessed with the possibility of extraterrestrial life. In some ways, each of these books represents a different side of the man. First, the similarities. Both authors are respected science popularizers. Both books are quite substantial, relying to a large degree on interviews with those who knew Sagan. Thus, there is considerable overlap between them--perhaps as much as 80 percent. Of the remaining, about 15 percent of Poundstone is totally unique material. His is the more exhaustive and detailed account, especially when discussing Sagan's original scientific work and influences. What Davidson may lack comparatively in content is more than made up for in style, though. While Poundstone plods in places, Davidson is lively, literary, and sometimes refreshingly speculative. Poundstone's version comes closer to being definitive and will probably have a longer shelf life, but Davidson's is more fun to read. Overall, Davidson's version seems truer to its subject, for with Sagan science and showmanship were inseparable. Let's split the difference and suggest that Poundstone's version is more appropriate for academic libraries, while Davidson's may find a larger audience in public libraries.--Gregg Sapp, Univ. of Miami Lib., Coral Gables Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Deborah J. Waldman
...veteran science writer Poundstone has done his homework...


Kirkus Reviews
Carl Sagan was without question the most famous scientist since Einstein. This biography tries to show why. Born to a Brooklyn Jewish family in 1934, Sagan showed an early interest in stars, dinosaurs, and large numbers: typical for a bright youngster. Later, he began to read science fiction, did experiments with a chemistry set, and dreamed of a career in astronomy. After persuading his parents he could make a living looking at stars, Sagan attended the University of Chicago. There he laid the foundations for the work for which he would become best known, acquiring influential mentors and writing a doctoral thesis with the unstated theme of life on other planets. Within a few years, he was among the leading experts on the subject, participating in the Green Bank conference where the modern SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) movement was born, and taking a position at Harvard. His 1966 translation/rewriting of a book by I. S. Shklovskii, Intelligent Life in the Universe, established him as a first-rate popularizer of science. That status didn't win him friends in academia; in 1968 he was denied tenure at Harvard and moved to Cornell, where he became one of the stars of the faculty. From Ithaca, N.Y., he sallied forth to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, to SETI conferences, and to Hollywood, to film Cosmos, the TV series that made him a household name. He was a fixture with NASA, contributing ideas to several major space missions—including the placing of a recording on the Pioneer spacecraft featuring samples of Earth's music. He was also a key figure in the "nuclear winter" controversy, arguing that the long-term effects of nuclear war could exterminatehumanity. His incredibly active career left behind 25 books and approximately 300 scientific papers. Poundstone (Prisoner's Dilemma, 1992, etc.) doesn't whitewash Sagan's personal flaws but leaves the reader with added appreciation of just how rich his legacy was—and what a loss his early death was to us. A readable and comprehensive life of a fascinating subject.

From the Publisher
"Because his greatest allegiance was to the truth, Sagan would probably like this book.... Poundstone does not draw conclusions, but presents the evidence of Sagan's life and allows readers to develop their own theories of what that life might mean to their own."—Publishers Weekly

"Relying on numerous interviews, Poundstone enables the reader to understand why the same man provoked often divergent opinions."—Science News

"Anyone who knew Carl Sagan will recognize Poundstone's biography as an accurate and very thorough presentation of a complex and productive life."—Frank Drake, The SETI Institute

Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.16(w) x 9.68(h) x 1.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



IN A MATTER of personal honor, and using only his bare hands, Leib Gruber killed a man in the village of Sasov. Gruber was Carl Sagan's grandfather. According to family tradition, the killing forced Gruber's hasty emigration to the New World. Had it not been for Gruber's fervid sense of honor, Cad Sagan would likely have never been born, nor would his family line have been elevated, in the space of two generations, from desperate poverty in the eastern European shtetl to the privileged circumstances of America's most prominent astronomer.

The River Bug

    In Leib Gruber's time the village of Sasov was part of the Austro-Hungarian crownland of Galicia. Today it falls within the Ukraine. Too small to appear in most atlases, the town is a little to the northeast of Lvov, on the Bug River.

    That river was Gruber's bread and butter. The Bug is shallow enough to wade across. In the absence of bridges or ferryboats, young men such as Leib hired themselves for passage, carrying passengers piggyback to the far shore.

    With the law on his trail, Leib had to get out of the country. He did not have enough money for both his and his wife's passage. The cost of lower-cabin passage to America was about $30 (U.S.), a princely sum in the shtetl. In 1904 Gruber sailed alone to New York (by one account, disguised in women's clothing!). He promised his wife, Chaya, that he would send for her after he earned the money for her passage. This he did with scarcely a pennyto spare. In late 1905 Chaya set sail from Hamburg on the Batavia. Required to declare how much money she had for the ship's manifest, she answered one dollar.

    Chaya was detained at Ellis Island for a "valvular disease of heart." This was not judged serious enough to declare her an undesirable and send her back. She rejoined her husband in the New World. It must have been an ardent reunion, for Chaya conceived a child within weeks of her arrival.

    The Grubers lived at 230 East Seventh Street in the bustling Lower East Side of Manhattan. There was a strong pressure to fit into American life. Chaya anglicized her name to Clara. She gave her new baby a good American name, Rachel Molly Gruber. This Rachel would be Carl Sagan's mother.

    A few years later, Clara bore a second daughter, Tobi. The stress of childbirth was too much for Clara's weak heart. Within a month of Tobi's birth, she died of what official records called cardiac failure due to chronic endocarditis. Clara was thirty-three years old.

    Leib Gruber now found himself alone again in a strange land. He could hardly raise two infant daughters and hold a job. He put Tobi in an orphanage and Rachel on an eastbound ship. Rachel's ship must have been uncrowded, compared to the teeming steerages of the westbound ships it passed. Upon arrival in Europe, Rachel was directed to the care of Leib's sisters in Austria.

    Had Rachel spent her life in central Europe, she well might not have survived the Holocaust. Fortunately, Gruber took a second wife, a younger woman named Rose Klinghofer. The couple recalled Rachel, still only about four years old, to raise her in the United States.

    As Rachel arrived back in New York, her hair was infected with lice from the filthy conditions of the ship. Leib took to calling her by a Yiddish nickname meaning "lice head"—a joke that must have proved irritating for a growing girl. It was a changed and somehow alien family that Rachel rejoined. Leib's attention was now directed to his new wife and her children. Leib informed Rachel that Rosie was her mother now. Rachel viewed Rosie as an impostor, a pod-person who had replaced her real mother. She refused to act as the others did, as if nothing had changed.

Samuel and Rachel

    Samuel Sagan was born in Kamenets-Podolsk—only about 120 miles to the southeast of Sasov—to Louis Sagan and Etta Lisenbaum. As Carl told it, Sagan was a Jewish title of nobility derived from the name of Akkadian king Sargon of the twenty-fourth century B.C. "In modern Hebrew," Carl once explained, "`Sagan' means `lieutenant'—an illustration of the deterioration of titles of nobility with time."

    The Sagan family's nobility was indeed at a low ebb. At about the age of five, Samuel Sagan left his impoverished parents behind to come to the United States with his siblings, sponsored by his uncle George. George was himself only about seventeen.

    This waifish family contended not only against the prejudices of Anglo-Americans but against those of New York's established Jews, who feared that poor, uneducated arrivals like the Sagans could only inspire American anti-Semitism. Samuel determined to make something of himself. He set his sights on college and a pharmacy degree. At Columbia University he was known for his skills at the pool table. As he explained it, he could not afford to lose money gambling, so he had to be good enough to beat the sort of students who could afford to lose money at pool. This picaresque career carried him two years. Finally, the depression forced him to drop out and take a real job.

    Samuel was a slender man of undistinguished features save for a head of flaming red hair. "Red" and "Lucky" were his nicknames. At a party he met the glamorous Rachel Gruber. It was love at first sight. They married in Brooklyn on March 4, 1933. As far as their children could determine, Samuel and Rachel never tired of each other throughout their long marriage. They were a case of temperamental opposites attracting.

    One family member's "defining memory" of the couple took place at the dinner table. Rachel brought a new dish to the table and anxiously asked Samuel how he liked it. Samuel took a meager bite. Scarcely allowing himself the luxury of swallowing, he announced, "It's fine."

    "YOU HAVEN'T EVEN TASTED IT!" Rachel shrieked.

    Rachel was a "screamer." An intelligent, ambitious woman, she seemed limited by the four walls of her Brooklyn apartment. Her razor-sharp wit was famous throughout her circle of family and friends. People saved her letters. They sparkled with a dishy, almost Jane Austen delight at people's failing to live up to what society expects of them.

    Rachel had a competitive nature. From childhood on, she was always trying to top the accomplishments of Rosie's children. She took it as an affront when one half sister gave birth to a daughter with flaming red hair (as if this were reason to question the fidelity of "Red," or "Lucky," Sagan). In the years to come, her half sisters would be kept well apprised of the successes of Rachel's son.

    Samuel was less passionate than Rachel, though perhaps more compassionate. He was a "mensch"; a great kidder rather than a great wit; a man capable of quiet sacrifices. He had to do some compromising in his time. He worked as an usher in a movie theater, then took a job with George Sagan's business, the New York Girls' and Women's Coat Company. Samuel started as a cutter. He wielded a power saw, a machine-age marvel as efficient and hazardous as anything in Modern Times. The machine cut dozens of layers of cloth at once to any desired pattern. Bolts of cut cloth were then passed on to rows of efficient women sitting at sewing machines. It was a sweatshop, by today's standards, One perk was that the female side of the Sagan family never wanted for coats.

    Samuel and Rachel lived in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, successively occupying apartments on Bay Thirty-seventh Street and Bay Parkway. It was a tidy neighborhood of working-class Jewish and Italian families. There was still enough open space that some of the Italians operated truck farms on vacant lots.

    Although there was not a lot of "house" to keep, Rachel made sure it was clean and well ordered. She was determined that the family have healthful, appealing, and kosher meals. A favorite Sagan family menu was broiled or baked fish, spinach prepared with eggs, and vegetables dripping with butter. To top off the meal, there would be generous helpings of chocolate pudding,

    The depression taught Rachel to watch every penny. She never lost the habit of thrift. On a trip to Europe toward the end of her life, she confessed that she was finally able to spend without guilt because the foreign currency looked like play money.

    On November 9, 1934, Rachel gave birth to a son, Carl Edward Sagan. Two explanations for the name Carl are extant. One is that he was named for Rachel's grandfather Kalonymous—Carl being a reasonable American equivalent. Another is that he was given a name similar to that of Rachel's mother, Chaya. The Edward came from Britain's Edward, Duke of Windsor.

    The boy was bright, handsome, and personable almost from infancy. Rachel doted on him. She worried that he did not walk unassisted until he was thirteen months old. Ever afterward, she worried that he was too thin.

    Rachel "followed prescriptions on childhood nutrition recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as if they had been handed down from Mount Sinai," Carl later wrote. "Our government book on children's health had been repeatedly taped together as its pages fell out. The corners were tattered. Key advice was underlined." These government manuals convinced Samuel and Rachel to give up smoking—not for their health (cigarettes were still touted as a healthful alternative to sweets) but so that they could put the pennies saved toward vitamin supplements for Carl.

    Samuel and Rachel likewise created opportunities to nourish Carl's mind. The family made trips to Manhattan's American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium. Carl liked the planetarium's tricked-up scales showing how much one would weigh on other worlds. There was something comforting to the forty-pound boy in stepping onto the Jupiter scale and seeing the needle register a good, solid 100 pounds.

Reality Check

    Carl remained slender, for all the vitamins and pudding. He was shy enough that Samuel was probably more pleased than angry when he got into a fight with a neighborhood kid. Carl thrust his fist through the plate glass window of Schechter's drugstore and needed two stitches. He was aware of having a dual nature. On the one hand, Carl liked to withdraw and spend time on the subjects that interested him. Opposing this was a strong competitive streak like his mother's. He strove to excel in the urban street games of stickball, handball, and basketball. (As a spectator he and Samuel followed the Yankees, their Brooklyn residence notwithstanding.)

    By the time Carl entered Brooklyn's P.S. 101, his interests skewed broadly toward fantasy: comic books, Greek myths, stars, dinosaurs, big numbers, magic. At age five, Samuel told his son that there is no biggest number. "You can always add one," he explained. Hearing this, Carl determined to write down all the numbers from 1 to 1,000. Thrifty Samuel offered him a stack of old shirt cardboards. They were an unbleached gray a little less dark than the mark a soft pencil made on them. Carl began writing eagerly. Eventually Rachel insisted that it was time for his bath. He had not made it to 200 yet. Samuel offered to continue writing numbers if Carl took his bath. By the time Carl got out of the bath, his father was nearly up to 900. Carl took over and made it to 1,000 that night, only a little beyond his bedtime.

    This numerical fascination informed Carl's hobby of stamp collecting. A prize acquisition was a stamp issued during the 1923 German hyperinflation, in the amount of 50 trillion deutsche marks.

* * *

Stars puzzled Carl. "I could see them at whatever time bedtime was in winter, and they just didn't seem to belong in Brooklyn." When he asked what stars were, people told him they were just lights in the sky. "Just small hovering lamps?" he wondered. "What ever for?" The uselessness of these lamps, way up in the lonely night air, invoked a sense of melancholy.

    Carl went to the Eighty-fifth Street library and demanded a book on stars. The librarian gave him one on the likes of Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. He protested and got the right kind of book, It opened a world of enchantment.

    The thing that hooked him was the statement that stars are suns—as big and bright as our own sun, diminished to twinkling pinpoints by the gulfs of light-years and the atmospheric phenomenon of scintillation. The hugeness of the universe, and the consequent insignificance of everything in the human realm, stunned him.

    Carl encountered the concept of life on other planets no later than age eight, when he precociously deduced that other stars must have planets like our sun. (He almost surely was exposed to the idea in some form before that. He avidly read and collected comic books, including Superman—who is after all an extraterrestrial.)

    At nine or so, Carl discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs's now-campy science-fiction novels of Mars. He devoured such titles as Thuvia, Maid of Mars, The Chessmen of Mars, and The Warlords of Mars. These had been written around the turn of the century, when eccentric American astronomer Percival Lowell was busily mapping the canals of Mars. In Burroughs's imagination, extraterrestrial life entailed herds of eight-legged beasts and Amazon-like women. His illustrators often supplied the latter with generous cleavage. The people who lived on Mars called the planet Barsoom. Carl liked the phrase "the hurtling moons of Barsoom."

    At just about the time that his interest in astronomy began, Carl saw the original (1940) release of Disney's Fantasia. The movie was his first extended exposure to classical music, to prehistoric animals, and to mythology. All became subjects of absorbing interest. He learned from his astronomy books that there ware centaurs and mythologic heroes in the night sky. He taught himself to identify the constellations and pointed them out to his family. In so doing, he absorbed much of the body of Greco-Roman myth.

    It was by way of myth that Cad's academic gifts were first recognized. One day the students were required to give impromptu talks on a subject of their choosing. Carl chose Greek and Roman mythology. He fluently spun myth after myth, drawing astute connections and diagramming them on the blackboards. The boy's knowledge seemed endless. He filled all the room's blackboards.

    Afterward, the school informed Samuel and Rachel that their son was gifted and might benefit from attending a private school. The Sagans decided against this—whether because of cost or as a matter of principle is uncertain. Carl stayed in public schools. Because of his exceptional ability, he was permitted to skip several grades.

    Carl was intrigued by the sometimes thin line separating reality and fantasy. Burroughs's hero was a Virginia gentleman named John Carter who was able to travel to Mars just by looking at the planet in the sky and wishing himself there. Carl tried that one night in a vacant Brooklyn lot. There was a magician in the comic strips, Zatara, who could perform magic by saying commands backward. Carl tried to levitate stones by saying "esir, enots."

    A reality check of a different kind came at a family gathering a few years later. Grandfather Leib asked Carl what he wanted to be when he grew up. An astronomer, Carl answered confidently. Leib's reaction was "Yes, but how will you make a living?"

    The cold waters of the River Bug had disabused Leib of any illusions about making a living. Carl could not dismiss the patriarch's stern words. Thereafter his daydreams of an astronomy career had to acknowledge a daily grind in the garment trade or as a door-to-door salesman. Carl would save his pocket change and buy a telescope. Then he would spend nights in diligent observations as a gentleman astronomer.

Carl and Carol

    The year Carl turned seven, Rachel gave birth to a daughter. Carl studied the matter and decided that his new sister should have a name as similar to his as possible. Carol, he determined, was the gifts name closest to Carl. Rachel named her daughter Carol Mae Sagan.

    Carol's earliest memory of Carl began with a friend daring her to ride her tricycle down a too-steep Brooklyn street. Carol took the challenge, fell off the trike, and was seriously injured. Her brother appeared out of nowhere. Carl gently picked her up, as unconcerned about getting her blood over himself as he was about the shared letters of their names. He carried her home. Carl seemed to Carol strong and brave, almost a grown-up. He could not have been more than about twelve.

* * *

Rachel was a difficult mother for Carol. She made little attempt to conceal her favoritism for Carl, and for the male sex generally. Carol was a beautiful child who grew into a somewhat awkward adolescent. Rachel treated this as if it were a cardinal sin. She had little regard for unattractive women.

    In Rachel's view, it was a woman's duty to be beautiful, popular, witty, and appealing—to men. Rachel dyed her hair a stylish blond. Each day, before Samuel got home from work, she would dress and make up her face. Each night, before going to bed, she put cold cream on her face. (Carl was once puzzled to find a beer in the bathroom. It was the "secret ingredient" in a beauty treatment for Rachel's hair.)

    Fortunately, Samuel loved both his children equally. ("I am sane because of my father," Carol says today.) Samuel was perpetually in the position of being Rachel's "spin doctor," offering excuses for the behavior of the wife that, indeed, he deeply loved.

    Many of the stories that family members tell about Rachel show she had a flair for creative engineering of the truth. When young Carl took it into his head not to eat mushrooms—for he could not stomach that mushy-sounding name—Rachel began telling him that they were onions. For quite some time mushrooms were known as onions in the Sagan household. Carl wised up only when he innocently ordered "onions" in a restaurant.

    One day while the children were at school, Carol's canary died. Rachel rushed out, bought an identical bird, and replaced it for the dead one in its cage. Convinced that the family would never know, she said nothing. That evening, Carol reached into the cage to feed her beloved Petey. The strange bird flitted in terror.

    If Rachel was no feminist, she was in some respects open-minded. In junior high, Carl got permission to bring a friend home for dinner. Rachel was surprised when the friend arrived. He was black, as were many of Carl's Brooklyn schoolmates. Afterward, she asked Carl why he hadn't mentioned the child's race. Carl said it hadn't occurred to him; it didn't seem important. While Rachel marveled at this as a token of the boy's otherworldly nature, she also found it laudable.

* * *

One afternoon in the apartment, Rachel gazed out the window at their view of Gravesend Bay and announced, "There are people fighting out there, killing each other."

    "I know," Carl lied. "I can see them."

    "No, you can't," Rachel corrected. "They're too far away." Before the fighting was over, the Nazis had exterminated the Jewish population of Sasov by firing squad and set their homes ablaze. Today almost nothing remains of the town's Jewish past.

Meet the Author

William Poundstone has been twice nominated 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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