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March 3, 2010 > Book Review: Carl Sagan: A Biography

Book Review: Carl Sagan: A Biography

A Book Review by Robert A. Garfinkle

Carl Sagan was probably the most widely known American astronomer of the last century; due in part to his books and as the host and star of the popular PBS television series Cosmos. Freelance journalists Ray Spangenburg and Kit Moser have packed a fascinating look at Sagan in this biography. Though a little on the thin side for such an extraordinary scientist, exobiologist, teacher, astrophysicist, and public figure, the authors have delivered enough concise information in this book to give the reader a full understanding of what made Carl Sagan tick and why the public embraced him. He made the technical and bewildering world of the cosmos understandable by non-scientists.

The authors present the early years of Carl Edward Sagan's life and the backgrounds of his immigrant parents and grandparents. We learn about his school years and I found it fascinating that he entered the University of Chicago at the age of 16. Sagan was able to work summers for several prominent scientists including Nobel Laureates Herman Joseph Muller (1952), physicist George Gamow (1957), chemist Melvin Calvin (1959), geneticist Joshua Lederberg, along with planetary scientist Gerard Kuiper in 1956. Sagan built friendships easily and these people helped him establish his place among the best American scientists.

I am somewhat dismayed at the lack of information about Sagan's role in the development of the search for extraterrestrial life in the chapter that covers this aspect of his career. The chapter seems to be devoted to the efforts of Frank Drake, while Sagan is hardly mentioned. Bits and pieces of Sagan's work in this area are mentioned in other parts of the book.

Overall, I enjoyed the brief look into the life and times of Carl Sagan and recommend it. I suggest that anyone interested in learning more about Sagan use this book as a primer, then consult any of the more detailed Sagan biographies available or read his books and the more than 500 scientific papers he published.

Carl Sagan: A Biography by Ray Spangenburg and Kit Moser, 2009
Pp 181
$16.98, paperback
New York: Prometheus Books (ISBN 978-1-59102-658-7)

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