Carl Sagan Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Keay Davidson is the science writer for the San Francisco Examiner and winner of the two top awards in American science journalism: the American Association for the Advancement of Science Westinghouse Prize and the National Association of Science Writers’ Science in Society award. In his biography of Carl Edward Sagan (1934-1996), the twentieth century’s preeminent popularizer of science, especially astronomy, Davidson continues to demonstrate exhaustive research and excellent writing abilities. Basing his book on hundreds of documents and dozens of personal interviews with family members, friends, and associates of Carl Sagan during a brilliant and often controversial career, Davidson has produced a substantial, detailed, and generally well-written biography. This book, however, is not an “objective” biography if by that term one means absent a point of view. Davidson confesses to having had as a child a serious case of hero worship for Sagan and continues to admire and respect him even after his detailed scrutiny of Sagan’s life over a period of years revealed significant character flaws, especially in the area of interpersonal relationships. Not only did Sagan’s first two marriages end in divorce, he also had fallings out with a number of intimates, including three to whom he had dedicated books.

Carl Sagan was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 9, 1934, to Sam Sagan and Rachel Molly Gruber Sagan, immigrant European Jews, “a hopeful people.” Sam was a gentle, sensitive man; Rachel, by all accounts, was acid-tongued but passionately devoted to Carl, so much so that he seems to have expected precisely the same sort of unquestioning devotion from the other females in his life. These qualities, along with his parents’ high intelligence and restless and unceasing energy, combined in Carl to create an intense, energetic, and optimistic man who was often a better “public” person than he was a husband, father, and friend. His optimism was perhaps his greatest emotional strength, but “intellectually, it would be his greatest liability,” a mixed legacy from Rachel. Stories—not all of them true as Davidson argues—abound about his flaws with interpersonal relations. Sagan was married three times, each time to a beautiful, intelligent woman. His first marriage to Lynn Alexander (later Margulis) on June 16, 1957, produced two children, Dorion and Jeremy, but ended with Margulis divorcing him in 1963. Sagan was never one to help around the house and demanded that Lynn subordinate her life and career to his professional and personal needs. He may even have been physically abusive to her as the marriage deteriorated. (Margulis went on to become a distinguished biologist, who won admission to the National Academy of Sciences, something Sagan never did. Their two children emerge in this biography as being, at best, ambiguous about Sagan.)

His second marriage was to Linda Salzman, an artist who was temperamentally the opposite of Sagan; their son, Nick, was born in 1970. In the mid-1970’s, however, Sagan met Ann Druyan at a party given by Nora Ephron, writer and filmmaker; guests included Timothy Ferris, a writer for Rolling Stone and companion of Druyan, Carl and Linda Sagan, Lynda Obst and her then-husband David Obst. It proved to be a fateful meeting, the beginning both of Sagan’s romance with Druyan and of his collaboration with Obst that would eventually yield the film version of Contact (1997). Sagan’s affair with Druyan resulted in a very messy contested divorce from Salzman, but this third marriage revealed that he had learned something about the costs of unmitigated careerism to marriages and relationships. By all accounts his marriage with Ann Druyan was mutually supportive and transformed Sagan into a whole person who was “aware of human beings, and not . . . arrogant and aloof.” Druyan helped Carl make up with his sons Dorion and Jeremy, and together they had two children, Sam and Alexandra (Sasha). Friends testified that Druyan taught him how to be a father to all his children.

In the light of his “very traditional attitude toward his first two wives, to whom he left the responsibilities for housework and child-rearing,” it is perhaps ironic that Sagan later in his life under Druyan’s guidance became a “consistent and fervent” feminist who “took a sincere interest in the scientific careers of female colleagues . . . and...

(The entire section is 1803 words.)