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Friday, October 15, 1999 Published at 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK


Carl Sagan: A life in the cosmos

The first biographies of Carl Sagan shed light on the man and the image

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

Carl Sagan was taken from us far too soon. When he died after two years of illness in 1996 aged only 62, it was clear that he had so much more to give.

Most will know him from his remarkable series of books, TV appearances, the TV series "Cosmos" and the movie "Contact". But there is far more to the man than his public image.

Not that he shied away from his public image. It is clear from two excellent new biographies that he craved the spotlight and needed an audience to which he could explain the wonders of the cosmos.

[ image: On the set of
On the set of "Cosmos"
His unrelenting drive in this direction irked those scientists who were less talented in communication and who secretly envied him.

Some, in a petty and small-minded way, would point out that his Sagan's scientific achievements were "only" very good. But that was to miss the point. The media went to Sagan because he inspired in a way that no other scientist was able to do.

In retrospect, Sagan's scientific achievements seem to grow. Perhaps they are becoming better appreciated now that he is no longer on our TV screens.

Over a 40-year working life, Sagan published over 300 scientific papers. Many are landmarks. That is one every six weeks! Few scientists have ever matched that.

Cosmic creativity

The production of the TV series "Cosmos" in the late 1970s was traumatic - and both biographies go into the details - but the outcome, and the associated book, was worth it.

[ image:  ]
More than 20 years later, there is not a book on astronomy - in fact not one on science - that comes close to the eloquence and intellectual sweep of Cosmos.

It is still a thrill to read it. In it, one sees connections and asks questions and, through the power of Sagan's language, is left with a feeling of wonderment.

If we send just one book to the grace the libraries of distant worlds tended by librarians born under the light of an alien sun, let it be "Cosmos".

Marijuana smoker

Many things are revealed in the biographies that were not known outside a close circle of friends. For much of his adult life, Sagan used marijuana and believed that it gave him many of his best ideas.

[ image: In later years]
In later years
Married three times, his last book was written with his third wife Ann Druyan, his equal in expression.

It is a remarkable series of essays called "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark".

It was published in 1996, the year he died ("Billions and Billions" was published posthumously). It arrived at a time when many had become suspicious of, if not hostile to, science because they believed its view of the world was a sterile, impersonal one of logic in which humans had no special place.


Sagan knew that we only live on a spec of dust floating in a sunbeam but he also knew that humans were a special part of the Universe. We are the way the cosmos knows itself.

His lifelong obsession was the idea that there could be life on other worlds, in our Solar System and beyond. It is sad that he never lived to see the discovery of life in space. He would have been our ambassador.

Carl Sagan: A Life, by Keay Davidson, John Wiley and Sons.

Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos by William Poundstone, Henry Holt and Company

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