Carl Sagan: A Life

Carl Sagan: A Life

by Keay Davidson


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A penetrating, mesmerizing biography of a scientific icon

"Absolutely fascinating . . . Davidson has done a remarkable job."-Sir Arthur C. Clarke

"Engaging . . . accessible, carefully documented . . . sophisticated."-Dr. David Hollinger for The New York Times Book Review

"Entertaining . . . Davidson treats [the] nuances of Sagan's complex life with understanding and sympathy."-The Christian Science Monitor

"Excellent . . . Davidson acts as a keen critic to Sagan's works and their vast uncertainties."-Scientific American

"A fascinating book about an extraordinary man."-Johnny Carson

"Davidson, an award-winning science writer, has written an absorbing portrait of this Pied Piper of planetary science. Davidson thoroughly explores Sagan's science, wrestles with his politics, and plumbs his personal passions with a telling instinct for the revealing underside of a life lived so publicly."-Los Angeles Times

Carl Sagan was one of the most celebrated scientists of this century—the handsome and alluring visionary who inspired a generation to look to the heavens and beyond. His life was both an intellectual feast and an emotional rollercoaster. Based on interviews with Sagan's family and friends, including his widow, Ann Druyan; his first wife, acclaimed scientist Lynn Margulis; and his three sons, as well as exclusive access to many personal papers, this highly acclaimed life story offers remarkable insight into one of the most influential, provocative, and beloved figures of our time—a complex, contradictory prophet of the Space Age.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780471395362
Publisher: Turner Publishing Company
Publication date: 09/14/2000
Pages: 580
Sales rank: 423,690
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

KEAY DAVIDSON is an award-winning science reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and has written feature articles for National Geographic and New Scientist. He coauthored the critically acclaimed book Wrinkles in Time with George Smoot. He lives in San Francisco, California.

Read an Excerpt

Carl Sagan: A Life

Keay Davidson
ISBN: 0-471-25286-7

Chapter 1
All his life, Carl Sagan was troubled by grand dichotomies— between reason and irrationalism, between wonder and skepticism. The dichotomies clashed within him. He yearned to believe in marvelous things— in flying saucers, in Martians, in glistening civilizations across the Milky Way. Yet reason usually brought him back to Earth. Usually; not always. A visionary dreams of a better world than this one. He refuses to think that modern society and its trappings— money, marriage, children, a nine-to-five career, and obeisance to a waving flag and an inscrutable God— are all there is. Sagan was blinded, but not by these. He was blinded by the sheer glory of the new cosmos that was unveiled by science during the first two decades of his life. This cosmos was an ever-expanding, unbounded wonderland of billions of galaxies. And across the light-years, Sagan dreamed, random molecular jigglings had perhaps spawned creeping, crawling, thinking creatures on alien landscapes bathed in the glow of alien suns.
This vision blinded Sagan, sometimes, to the needs of the people around him. These included friends who worshiped him, although he hurt them; wives who were entranced by his passions, although they were enraged by his absenteeism and often illogical "logic" ; sons who were enthralled by his example, even as they struggled to escape his shadow; and colleagues who envied and honored him, even while they scorned his wilder notions and mocked his pomposities. Hardly anyone who knew Carl Sagan intimately has an unmixed opinion of him. In the final analysis, he was the dichotomy: the prophet and the hard-boiled skeptic, the boyish fantasist and the ultrarigorous analyst, the warm companion and the brusque colleague, the oracle whose smooth exterior concealed inner fissures, which, in the end, only one woman could heal.

Sagan's inner war stemmed, in part, from his childhood relations with his parents. Rachel and Sam's marriage epitomized a great philosophical principle: Opposites attract. Sagan later traced his analytical urges to Rachel, a cunning, acid-tongued neurotic who had known extreme poverty and been abandoned by her family. Her intellectual ambitions had been thwarted by the grand irrationalisms of her time— by societal bigotries against the poor, against Jews, against women (and wives in particular). She worshiped her only son, Carl. He would fulfill her unfulfilled dreams.
And Carl's sense of wonder came from Sam, a quiet, soft-hearted escapee from the czar. Sam gave apples to the poor and soothed labor-management tensions in New York's tumultuous garment industry. He was awed by the young Carl's brilliance, his boyish chatter about stars and dinosaurs— but not overawed. Sam would have adored his son had he been just another Jewish kid in wartime Brooklyn who played kickball in the streets while Nazi subs haunted the coastline.
Posterity's judgment of Rachel Molly Gruber Sagan (1907— 1982) is wildly contradictory. "Vivacious," "a witch," "brilliant, very perky, very bright," "insane— very paranoid," "you knew she was coming from a mile away," "completely loving," "a waif . . . who needed all the affection she could get"— so say those who enjoyed or endured her.1 Her education was meager, her looks unlovely. Neglected by her family, she grew up almost homeless in New York City during World War I and the 1920s. Yet she had flash and charisma, a feisty sense of fashion, and a rapid, eloquent tongue. She made (and dumped) friends fast, and boyfriends faster. She wrote well, too. Her first child, Carl, would inherit her literary skill.
Her prose style might be described as "Take no prisoners." Shortly before her death, unmellowed by age, she gleefully wrote to two married friends about Carl and his third wife Ann Druyan's new Ithaca mansion, describing it as

a weirdo of a house, most of it underground (great protection from a nuclear blast) . . . the result of a lurid nightmare of the architect. Because I was aghast and against it, they don't speak to me. . . . [Carl] must and will have installed a sophisticated burglar alarm— there are threats against him by some crazy people who claim he appears in their dreams and keeps them from sleeping. One such was apprehended.,2

Rachel's bilious prose camouflaged her pride. How far she had come from her rotten beginnings! Through the Depression and Hitler and Alger Hiss, she had raised to adulthood a boy who, by the century's twilight, had become the world's best-known living scientist, a multimillionaire TV star and Pulitzer Prize– winning author, and recently wed to a brainy, luminous brunette (a lady so desirable that a prior suitor had written a novel about her3 ). He was so famous, in fact, that he haunted the minds of the mad. My son, the specter!
Bragged Rachel, the onetime waif, at the end of her letter:

We are not the run of the mill, are we, or the rank and file or the ordinary plebeian.
Aren't you glad you know us?

Hysterically, Rachel

Rachel's origins were vague; she preferred it that way. She and her family tended to be secretive about embarrassing family matters, Carl Sagan wrote in a November 28, 1994, letter to lifelong friend Lucille Nahemow, a professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, who specializes in family issues and who studied Rachel's life.4
Carl's sole sibling was his sister, Carol, nicknamed Cari. A social worker, she is married to a Union Carbide executive. In the living room of their handsome home in Houston, she showed this writer a faded black-and-white photo of a middle-aged couple standing on a boardwalk at the beach. The man in the photo is Leib Gruber, Rachel's father. Tall and unsmiling, he wears a dark suit and a big black hat. He looks like a movie mobster. "The rumor," Cari said as she served coffee and Passover muffins, "is that he was a murderer."5
Leib Gruber was born in the late nineteenth century in the village of Sassow, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire— an empire "creaking in all its multi-national joints," as Arthur Koestler put it, "waiting to fall to pieces." Across the continent, the vipers of anti-Semitism stirred: the Dreyfus case in France, village slaughters in rural Russia. Conspiracy theorists touted the fraudulent Protocols of Zion as "proof " of a global Jewish conspiracy. In reality, few Jews outside an intellectual and artistic elite— Freud, for example— found influential careers within Emperor Francis Joseph's doomed empire. Leib's father sold fish. Young Leib was big-boned and strong, and raised cash in a medieval manner— carrying travelers on his back across the shallow stretches of a river. In the words of his grandson Carl Sagan, he was "a beast of burden."6
According to one version of a family legend, in 1904 Leib killed an Anti-Semite.7 He fled to the New World, leaving behind his young wife, Chaiya. (His loyal brother supposedly stayed in Austria to take the rap for the crime.) Leib got a job in the United States. He made enough money to transport Chaiya to New York on a Hamburg-based ship, the Batavia. She arrived with one dollar in her bag. The couple anglicized their names, from Leib to Louis and from Chaiya to Clara. Then they settled down and bred two children. The first was Rachel, whose official birthdate was November 23, 1907. (The true birthdate is uncertain because Rachel was secretive about her age.)8 Chaiya died during a second childbirth. For whatever reason, Leib/Louis decided that he couldn't manage little Rachel. He sent her to Austria, where she lived with relatives. In the meantime, he remarried. Unfortunately, the Austrian relatives didn't want— or couldn't stand— the energetic little girl. After a few years, they shipped Rachel back to New York, to her father and her stepmother, Rose (the woman in the photo). Rose received her stepchild with less than open arms. "By the time she was eight," Professor Nahemow observes, "Rachel was rejected on two continents."9
Rachel's family was dysfunctional before "dysfunctional" was a cliché. Leib gave his children nasty nicknames. He called Rachel "hair lice" (she had returned from Austria with lice in her hair).10 Rachel's stepbrother Abraham was institutionalized for mysterious reasons; his very existence was a family secret. (Carl Sagan first heard about his stepuncle at Rachel's funeral in 1982.)11
Leib had a good side. On one occasion, Rachel's schoolteacher reprimanded her for misbehavior. Leib protected Rachel from Rose's wrath by lying to his wife, claiming that the reprimand was actually a compliment. Still, Rachel avoided home as much as possible. She hated Rose. Rachel "never accepted Rose as her mother. She knew she wasn't her birth mother," Cari Sagan says. "She was a rather rebellious child and young adult . . . 'emancipated woman,' we'd call her now." Professor Nahemow obtained many details about Rachel's childhood from Nahemow's mother, Flora Bernstein, one of Rachel's closest childhood friends. Once Rose stormed into Flora's childhood home, accusing Rachel of being a "whore." Flora's mother "unceremoniously threw her out."12
Flora, a resident of Liberty Avenue in Brooklyn, met seven-year-old Rachel when she was skipping rope with friends. Rachel invited the shy, pretty new girl to play. Rachel, Flora learned, "was inventive and fun to be with." In turn, Flora offered Rachel access to her home. The Bernstein residence was much nicer than the Grubers' grubby digs. The Bernsteins threw many parties with interesting people (none of whom were wanted for murder in Austria). Ambitious, Rachel seized her opportunity: she became "outgoing and very affectionate" toward Flora's mother. In turn, Mrs. Bernstein adored Rachel— enough to make Flora jealous. Rachel, Flora now believes, "was a waif, an unfortunate child who needed all the affection she could get."
Rachel had a reputation for taking "chances." She "would come to [Mrs. Bernstein's] Hebrew school and pick up boys," Flora recalls. "She was always . . . very conscious of the opposite sex. She dressed well and had a good sense of fashion. Rachel was the first one in the crowd who bought a bathing suit. There was a law about the length of suits and Rachel's was too short. She was thrown off the boardwalk in Coney Island."13
Rachel was smart. She completed an equivalency test to receive a high school diploma. "Brilliant, a very perky little woman, smart, well read, very interesting to talk to," recalls one of her relatives, Beatrice Rubenstein.14 Rachel explored New York's high culture with the guidance of a savvy relative, Sarah Cohen. They lacked money but managed to get into concerts, plays, and ballets via hook, crook, and subway. Sarah "learned to get through turnstiles without paying, and took Rachel along. Sometimes they entered [the show] at intermission and stood in the back."15
As the war-mad 1910s became the money-mad 1920s, Rachel and her female pals formed a club. They called themselves the " 'It' Girls" after screen heartthrob Clara Bow. By that time Rachel was a brassy, bold, five-foot-two cyclone. She was hardly a beauty. But no one, male she blew into a room and leveled it with her street-smart mouth and radiant eyes. "Rachel was unpredictable," recalls Flora Bernstein. "She sometimes stole other girls' boyfriends just to show that she could do it. But at other times she was very protective of her friends. I once went in a car with a boy. Rachel wrote down the license number and said, 'You take good care of my friend. If anything happens to her, I have your number.'"16
At a party, " 'It' Girl" Mary Brodsky introduced Rachel to a quiet young man. He was skinny, red-haired, and covered with freckles. When they went swimming, she gasped at the extent of his red-splotched flesh. "Are you freckled everywhere?" she demanded. "Everywhere!" he boasted. Samuel Sagan made Rachel's hormones race, and she his. "She saw dad's red hair and immediately fell in love," Cari Sagan says. "And he was swept off his feet by her, which is understandable because she was very, very charismatic and vivacious." They were married within weeks.17
In Carl Sagan's lakeside home in upstate New York, his widow, Ann Druyan, keeps a black-and-white photo of the young Sam and Rachel. They are kissing enthusiastically, Hollywood-style, on a boardwalk. They wed in the early 1930s, the bleakest days of the Great Depression. At that time, Sam was a poorly paid usher at a movie theater.18In Germany, Nazis were marching. American Jews feared an upsurge of local fascism. "The apprehensiveness of American Jews," Fortune magazine observed, "has become one of the important influences in the social life of our time."19 No matter; Rachel and Sam were in love. They married, had two kids, survived it all. They lived long enough to retire to Florida, to play Scrabble and shoot pool, to watch their son grow famous on television. Sagan's secretary Shirley Arden recalls how playful the couple remained to the end: "Sam took the golfer's stance à la Johnny Carson, gave Rachel a lecherous look, and said, 'Just you and me, babe.' Rachel was a sensuous woman. Sam adored her and put up with her foibles."
Rachel, Cari Sagan Greene recalls, would fuss over Sam's hair and "make sure that the little dip in my father's hair was just so. . . . She wanted the man that she married to look the way she thought 'good' looked. . . . He was sort of indulgent; he knew it was inevitable; it didn't bother him a bit." In 1979, at age seventy-four, Sam lay in a hospital dying of lung cancer. Rachel slipped into the bed with him, to hug and comfort him.20

When Sam Sagan* was five years old, he left the Ukraine and joined the hungry, hopeful millions then streaming to America. As an adult, he would recall little about his Ukrainian hometown, save one detail: it was near a prison.21 An appropriate memory. The entire Pale of Settlement, a vast expanse of farmland between the Baltic and the Black Seas, was effectively a prison where the Jews of the Russian Empire were forced to live, subjected to many governmental restrictions. Incorporating fragments of dismembered medieval states, the Pale seethed with ever-growing numbers of impoverished peoples, including former serfs.22 Their lives were humdrum at best, nightmarish at worst— more like Bernard Malamud's The Fixer than Fiddler on the Roof.
Sam was born on March 2, 1905. It was a triumphant year in the history of science, and an ominous one in Russian history. Outside Russia, "the year 1905 was the turning point in several areas of science, heralding radical changes," says historian of science Stephen G. Brush.23 That year brought pivotal accomplishments by many researchers, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein among them.
Freud and Einstein— two Jews, who overcame anti-Semitism and rose to fame by challenging our view of reality. In 1905, Freud published Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 24 one of his classic explorations of the unconscious. As he explained, the mind is not merely a "reasoning" machine, as Victorian optimists had believed. Rather, the mind is haunted by ghosts, by irrational forces of desire and repression. Freud believed that these ghosts surface in symbolic forms. One form is the self-destructive group behavior called war.
Also in 1905, Einstein published three historic papers. The most radical was his theory of special relativity, which transformed concepts of time, space, mass, and energy. 25 Special relativity paved the way toward his later, even stranger work on general relativity. In general relativity theory, gravity is not a Newtonian "force" or action-at-distance; rather, it is the consequence of the "curvature" of space. General relativity implied a whole new cosmology, a cosmos that (as it turned out) expands over time. As astrophysicists later showed, the cosmos expands because it was born billions of years ago from the big bang, a kind of "explosion" whose ejecta cooled into innumerable galaxies.26 And each galaxy is an ocean of stars, whose light may illumine countless planets, many of them perhaps inhabited.
The Freudian and Einsteinian revolutions posed big questions, questions that tormented Carl Sagan much of his adult life. Reason and irrationalism— polar opposites, yet uncomfortably united. Earth and the cosmos— different realms, yet part of each other. Sagan explored such dichotomies in many of his books, in cosmological ruminations such as Cosmos and Contact, and in his essay-poems on consciousness and evolution, The Dragons of Eden and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Humanity, he believed, must reconcile its rational and irrational sides. Succeed, and empyrean vistas open before us; the cosmos is ours to explore, with all its strange and wonderful sights and (perhaps) peoples. Fail, and we won't make it out of the solar system alive. All our bright promise will be lost; all our long progress will end in a bright, noisy flash.
Freud's outlook grew dark as Europe tore itself to bits in one war, then rearmed for a worse one; and darker as the cancer attacked his mouth. By contrast, Sagan was an optimist— always was, even as the blood disease ravaged his body, even as he waited to be arrested at an atomic site, even as he gazed into the poker faces of nuclear weaponeers and realized that they really believe in their research, believe that instruments of annihilation will forever keep the peace. Sagan experienced all this yet still believed in the future, in humanity, in the eventual triumph of reason. At heart, he was a child.
He descended from a hopeful people. Pessimists stayed in the Ukraine, scratching their meager existences from the dark soil. Optimists said to hell with it and headed west, usually to America. The 1900s were a good time to leave: the Russian Empire quaked with revolts and pogroms, foreshocks of the greater revolution to come, in 1917. The czarist regime struck back with typically cloddish brutality. Six weeks before Sam Sagan's birth in 1905, troops killed more than a hundred peaceful protesters in St. Petersburg. In June, sailors mutinied aboard the battleship Potemkin in Odessa. The revolts triggered an anti-Semitic backlash. Thousands of Jews, including many women, were arrested on political grounds. According to Moses Rischin, "In 1904, of an estimated 30,000 organized Jewish workers, 4,476 were imprisoned or exiled to Siberia." 27 Young Leon Trotsky observed one of the 1905 pogroms. He noted how "the gang rushes through the town, drunk on vodka and the smell of blood."28
According to family legend, after Sam's mother died in childbirth, his Ukrainian relatives sent him to New York to join his father, who had already journeyed there. Five-year-old Sam and his uncle, George, first glimpsed the New York skyline in 1910, from a ship approaching Ellis Island.29 Many immigrants' hearts raced as they read this passage in a guidebook: "Hold fast, this is most necessary in America. Forget your past, your customs, and your ideals. Select a goal and pursue it with all your might. . . . You will experience a bad time but sooner or later you will achieve your goal. . . . Do not take a moment's rest."30
"Do not take a moment's rest." This might have been George Sagan's credo, or his grandnephew Carl's. George was old enough to join the booming New York garment industry. In 1916 he founded his own firm, the New York Girl Coat Company. Eventually he became a wealthy man, a country-club type and a member of the board of educational and public-spirited institutions. When the firm celebrated its fiftieth anniverary 1966, the New York Times ran a story on the front page of its business section. The story included a photo of a grinning George Sagan admiring a little girl modeling his wares.31 As a joke, Carl Sagan mentioned the firm in his 1985 novel Contact. 32
Sam had more intellectual ambitions. Like many immigrant Jews, he believed in the transformative power of education. He eventually enrolled at Columbia University, hoping to become a pharmacist. Then his father died. End of dream.33 To support his family, Sam went to work for Uncle George as a garment cutter. "[H]is job," Carl Sagan later wrote, "was to use a very scary power saw to cut out patterns— backs, say, or sleeves for ladies' coats and suits— from an enormous stack of cloth. Then the patterns were conveyed to endless rows of women sitting at sewing machines."34 Textile fibers wafted through the air; some, perhaps, found their way into Sam's lungs and hastened his ultimate end.35 This proletarian fate did not embitter Sam. He was good with people, liked them; they adored him. By the late 1940s he was a factory manager. He made enough money to send his son to a great university, to be taught by noted scholars who would escort him to fame.
"You will experience a bad time but sooner or later you will achieve your goal." The guidebook had been right. This was America; optimism, it seemed, made sense.

Carl Sagan was born in Brooklyn on November 9, 1934. His mother, Rachel, named him in honor of her biological mother, Chaiya/ Clara, "the mother she never knew," in Sagan's words.36
As a science popularizer, Sagan sometimes drew on childhood memories to illustrate scientific points. "Most of us have a memory like this: you're lying in your crib, having awakened from your nap," he and his wife, Ann Druyan, wrote in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. "You cry for your mother, at first tentatively, but when no one comes, more emphatically. Panic mounts. Where is she? Why doesn't she come? you think, or something along those lines— although not in words, because your verbal consciousness is still almost wholly undeveloped. She enters the room smiling, she reaches in and picks you up, you hear her musical voice, you smell her perfume— and how your heart soars!"37
Rachel was madly in love with her little boy. She told him he was brilliant. He believed her. Throughout Sagan's life, Rachel's devotion to her son awed or amused or disgusted outsiders. "She worshiped the ground he floated above," joked Peter Pesch, the best man at Sagan's first wedding. "He could do no wrong. That's got to be a good start in life— a mother that thinks you are the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth."38 Sagan's boyhood friend Robert Gritz recalls Rachel bragging to everyone about Carl— for example, gloating, "Oh, Carl got an A!"39The writer Timothy Ferris, who befriended Sagan in the 1970s, remembers the aged Rachel as "an ur-mother who'd made a kind of shrine to Carl in the spare bedroom with all his awards and everything, and to whom every accomplishment was just a step toward the next accomplishment."40
"There's no way of understanding him without understanding her very well," says Sagan's first wife, scientist-author Lynn Margulis. "His mother had made him so dependent on this one relationship— on her.He was worthy of every attention, all the time, every need [was] always filled."41
Despite this adoration, there were hidden fears in Sagan's life. He later wrote that starting at age two, he was "frightened . . . by real-seeming but wholly imaginary 'monsters,' especially at night or in the dark. I can still remember occasions when I was absolutely terrified, hiding under the bedclothes until I could stand it no longer, and then bolting for the safety of my parents' bedroom— if only I could get there before falling into the clutches of . . . The Presence."42 Sometimes he awoke "drenched in sweat, my heart pounding." (A child is terrified of the dark, then grows up and becomes an astronomer. Psychoanalysts may make of this what they will.)
Rachel's devotion to Carl was double-edged. She had experienced life's darker side. She had little patience with those— even children— who fantasized about life. The slightest whimsical observation might irk or anger her. In his final years, Sagan recalled a "blustery fall day" when he was about age five, looking out the living room window at Lower New York Bay. The water was choppy and the sun was about to set. His mother came by the window and they gazed toward the Atlantic Ocean. On the other side of the sea, World War II was beginning. "There are people fighting out there, killing each other," she told him. Carl replied: "I know. I can see them." She fired back: "No, you can't. They're too far away."
This seemingly trivial incident gnawed at Sagan. His adoring mother had contradicted him! He later wrote: "How could she know whether I could see them or not? . . . Squinting, I had thought I'd made out a thin strip of land at the horizon on which tiny figures were pushing and shoving and dueling with swords as they did in my comic books."43
Rachel "could be utterly charming," Lynn Margulis recalls. Yet Rachel also could scan a newcomer, find her or his vulnerability, and "stick it in"— make a caustic remark that deeply hurt.44 Sagan's sister, Cari, remembers how as a child, "I always had a deep voice and she would imitate it, not in a pleasant way, just in a way that wiped me out emotionally. . . . It was devastating." Cari's mother gave Carl more attention: "I can never remember her hugging me," Cari said.45
Sagan's son Nick, a television writer, recalls his grandmother as a delightful fireball. She was a great cook and loved to make him spicy spaghetti and meatballs. But "she was insane— in a sometimes wonderful, and sometimes not wonderful, way . . . very paranoid. She was convinced that restaurants weren't sanitary and that the waiters would always spit in the food." Rachel's eccentricities affected Sagan emotionally. Her dedication to logic, like his, sometimes bordered on the illogical. Once Carl, smelling her cooking, made an "Mmm!" sound. "What do you mean?" she snapped angrily. "You haven't even tasted it yet!" Over the long run, Nick believes, his father compensated for Rachel's wackiness: "She was irrational in certain ways, and that led to his very ultra-rational kind of way with things."46
Arrogance often hides insecurity; pretentiousness usually conceals ignorance. These are psychological truisms. Rachel was touchy about her limited education. Once she and some friends went to an Arthur Miller play and argued about it afterward. Feeling slighted, Rachel reportedly stormed off, declaring: "You'll hear from me when I get my degree."47 She wanted to go to college, but Sam vetoed the idea. He also forbade her to get a job. Uncharacteristically, she complied; no other man could have said no to Rachel and lived. She was resentful, but she didn't let her mind rot. She "read a great deal . . . was very interesting . . . an intellectual person," Cari says. "When I was taking piano lessons, she would be resting on the couch, reading the New York Times."48
In the 1980s and 1990s, Sagan, Ann Druyan, and their intimate friend the movie producer Lynda Obst, met in southern California to plan the film Contact.Obst recalls how they sat around for hours, telling stories about their mothers: "Hours! . . . We were all really interested in psychology and figuring ourselves out." Sagan revered his mother's memory, but by that time he didn't have any illusions about her; he had seen how she treated his first two wives. He was also beginning to look into his own soul, to understand the kind of person hewas— the kind of person Rachel had made him. "All the time we talked about Rachel . . . [Carl] wasn't angry with her . . . but he also knew how controlling she was, and how tough and mean she was to his other wives, and how selfish she made him in certain kinds of ways— how 'entitled' is a better word," Obst says. "Rachel had so many secrets and so many issues. . . . I think she had a lot of rage. And Carl was her production— Carl was a 'Rachel Production.' And she launched him into the world to stake her claim. In some sense he was shot out of a cannon."49
Indeed, little Carl was an impressive kid, sometimes too impressive. "I was thrown out of Sunday school," he recalled. Someone had asked, How did Pharaoh's daughter know that Moses was a Hebrew child? The answer was, "He was circumcised," but the teacher was too embarrassed to say it. Carl kept "pushing and pushing and pushing" the teacher to answer the question. "Did [the child] have a Hebrew letter on it? How could you know? . . . And the teacher couldn't give me the answer, even though he knew it, because he was embarrassed."50
Jews were a large fraction of the populace in Bensonhurst, a Brooklyn neighborhood. The Sagans lived in a modest apartment a short walk from the Atlantic Ocean. Nearby was Coney Island, a site of frequent Sagan family outings. Old photos show Carl lolling on the beach, with baby Cari on his back.
The 1930s. The Great Depression (which fascists blamed on Jews). Framed pictures of FDR (attacked by bigots for his "Jew Deal" ) on kitchen walls. Edward G. Robinson (born Emmanuel Goldenberg) movies at the Bijou. Father Coughlin on the radio, denouncing Jews. "My family never hid the fact that they were Jewish, [but] didn't shout it from the rooftops," Cari Sagan says.51The exact nature of the family's religious faith is unclear. In a 1991 interview, Sagan recalled that they were Reform Jews, the more liberal wing of Judaism's three main groups (Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform).52 Cari, however, says they were Conservative (that is, more conservative than Reform but more liberal than Orthodox).53 In any case, both agree that their father, Sam, showed little religious interest. Cari says Rachel "definitely believed in God and was active in the temple. . . . My mother only served kosher meat. . . . There [were] never any pork products or shellfish in the family or household." The couple occasionally quarreled, but not over religion.54 Carl said: "My mother and my father were deeply in love with each other, and so my father went along for my mother's sake."55 In turn, Cari noted, Rachel was flexible: "My dad liked bacon and eggs. And so he would go out on a weekend or some time and have it at a restaurant. And my mother was okay with that because it wasn't brought into the house."56 In this Judaically fluid atmosphere, the teenage Carl would nurse primal doubts.
Secularization was in the air. The great rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the originator of Reconstructionist Judaism, a new, fourth branch of Judaism, urged Jews to abandon superstition, to rebuild their lives around ethnic identification rather than ancient folk tales.57 The Humanist movement was well under way; its diverse band of intellectuals, leftists, and religious skeptics urged Americans to concentrate not on a doubtful hereafter but on the certain here and now.58 Trotskyists passed out literature on street corners. One's aunt or uncle might be an active member of the Communist party. "In the park right across from Carl's, on a Sunday afternoon," his friend Gritz remembers, "it was like Hyde Park in London: guys would stand up and give speeches for or against Stalin."59
Sam was no intellectual, and as a factory boss he was certainly no Marxist. But he gave his children a social conscience. Cari was awed by his warm relationship with his workers at the factory— no mean feat in the highly unionized and combative garment industry— and decided to become a social worker.60
As for Carl, he was four or five years old when his parents took him to the New York World's Fair of 1939— 1940. Holding their lunches, they walked by a man selling pencils. Sam took Carl's apple and gave it to the man. Carl disliked apples; nonetheless, he started wailing. It was his apple! To avoid embarrassing the man, Sam carried Carl away until their voices were out of earshot. "We don't really need that apple," he explained to his son gently. "That fellow was hungry."61 Carl never forgot the lesson. Many decades later, his enemies would include the nation's most virulent right-wingers.
At the nadir of the Depression, Sam Sagan had been a miserably paid movie usher in New York City. Six decades later, his only son's name would glisten on the movie screen. Sagan recalled his parents: "My relationship with them was really very good. I missed them often. Still miss them. . . .
"Every now and then, when I am working or I am shaving or something like that, I hear— as clear as a bell— one of them saying my name: 'Carl,' just like that. . . . It's unmistakable. I know whose voice it is. . . . I turn around before I can do any cerebration on it. . . . [Memory of their voices] has to be in many different parts of my brain. And it's not surprising that my brain would sort of, you know, play it back . . . every now and then."62
When Sagan repeated this story publicly, parapsychology buffs misunderstood his meaning. They excitedly spread the rumor (in words to this effect): "Carl Sagan, the king of skeptics, is in psychic contact with his dead parents!" Pseudoscientists and occultists were always misunderstanding Sagan. He was the best-known scientist of his time, and they yearned to convert him to their various causes. And it is true that throughout his life, Sagan proposed many unusual ideas, some so unusual that his more conventional colleagues scorned him as a sensationalist, a headline grabber. But for all his fancies, Sagan was too good a scientist to be fooled by his brain's neurological mirages; he was too confident an atheist to think he would ever see or hear his parents again, no matter how much he loved and missed them. The skeptic inside him— the "Rachel" inside him— knew better.

During The Depression, Thomas Wolfe observed a new intellectual force afoot: thousands of bright young Jews, the children of immigrants. In You Can't Go Home Again, Wolfe described "the Jew boy" eagerly reading in a New York tenement building. "For what? Because, brother, he is burning in the night. He sees the class, the lecture room, the shining apparatus of gigantic laboratories, the open field of scholarship and pure research, certain knowledge and the world distinction of an Einstein name."63
New York City, 1939. The nation was still groggy from the Great Depression. Evil was afoot around the world— Hitler and Mussolini in Europe, militarists in Japan. Yet pessimism did not come easily to Americans. They loved to talk about the future and the wonders it would bring. Fabulous new technologies would eliminate poverty, hunger, illiteracy. Synthetic foods would feed the starving. Miracle drugs would heal the sick. Television would bring high culture— for free!— into every home. An ordinary Joe could afford his own small airplane. (And would keep it, one presumes, in a backyard hangar.) Aviation would make long-distance travel routine. Hence, national and international cultural barriers would dissolve; hence, different societies would better understand each other; hence, farewell to war!64
The Depression had stirred radical juices. Socialists and Communists were on the march, radicalizing workers, threatening to redistribute wealth and topple the greedy few. But technology's propagandists promised to improve society without any need for class revolts or ideological bickering. How? Simple! Technology was the physical embodiment of Enlightenment rationalism. Rationalism or reason was the royal road to Truth, to optimal solutions for all problems, solutions that would satisfy everyone regardless of class or ethnicity or nationality. (Gender was not on the intelligentsia's radar screen at that time.) Therefore (the propagandists argued), technology, being reason's physical embodiment, was inherently nonideological. Its control could be entrusted to politically neutral "experts," professional Benthamites whose goal was the greatest good for the greatest number.65
Who could question such a noble agenda? As in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, where Emerald City looms miragelike beyond the poppy fields, the "City of Tomorrow" beckoned on the horizon of 1939. It would be a city of superhighways and robots and television— of everything, in fact, displayed at the 1939 New York World's Fair. While Hitler blitzkrieged into Poland and France, Americans fantasized about a coming techno-utopia that satisfied all needs while requiring a minimum of societal self-criticism or personal introspection. There was no need to question who would control the technology, or for what ends. Carl Sagan's generation was raised on this technological faith. It is little wonder that for decades afterward, Sagan collected Fair memorabilia— postcards, ashtrays, and the like.
At the Fair's Futurama exhibit, operated by General Motors, participants "flew" over a moving map of the America of Tomorrow. They passed futuristic cities with elevated highways and cloud-piercing skyscrapers. Fairgoers were informed about future wonders: weather control, robots, atomic energy. "It showed beautiful highways and clover leafs and little General Motors cars all carrying people to skyscrapers, buildings with lovely spires, flying buttresses— and it looked great!" Sagan remembered.66
In retrospect, Sagan acknowledged, he had accepted the Fair's "extremely technocratic" message in "an uncritical way." Young Carl thought: "That's what tomorrow is going to be like. Gee! And I'm going to live in it!" He gasped at a display in which a flashlight illuminated a photoelectric cell, creating a crackling sound. In another exhibit, a sound wave from a tuning fork registered as a sine wave on an oscilloscope. "Plainly," Sagan observed, "the world held wonders of a kind I had never guessed. How could a tone become a picture and light become a noise?" He also witnessed, for the first time, the technology that would make him famous: television.
One of the Fair's most publicized gimmicks was the burial of a time capsule at Flushing Meadows. It contained mementos of the 1930s to be recovered by our descendants millennia hence. The time capsule thrilled Carl. Imagine, relics of our day, unearthed and pored over by inhabitants of an epoch unimaginably more wonderful than ours! How they will smile as they examine the pop-culture artifacts of our century, or struggle to decipher the script of old documents, written in languages as obscure to them as Chaucerian English is to us.
As an adult, Sagan and his colleagues would create his own time capsules— capsules destined to survive not for millennia inside the Earth, but for millions of years in the galaxy. The Pioneer plaques and the Voyager records— all are long-term spinoffs of Sagan's wide-eyed scamper through the World's Fair. These metallic messages to the cosmos may drift through the Milky Way for billions of years, never to be found. And if they are found, it'll be by creatures not of this world. But space is terribly vast; there is only an infinitesimal chance that aliens will one day scrutinize these micrometeorite-scarred ambassadors of Earth, these relics of a. d. 1939, of the spirit of Flushing Meadows, of the high hopes that soon crashed and burned in the chaos of World War II.

A New York Boy, particularly a Jewish boy, could not fail to be aware of the Second World War. The headlines were full of strange words such as Blitzkrieg and Anschluss. Parents whispered about the fate of European relatives. In 1942, when Sagan was seven, the struggle between fascism and democracy took place literally within earshot. His friend Robert Gritz remembers lying in bed at night and listening to the far-off "boom!" of exploding merchant ships, more victims of Hitler's "wolf packs." Kids on Brooklyn beaches stumbled on the resulting debris— binoculars, jackets, body parts.67
"Sure, we had relatives who were caught up in the Holocaust," Sagan recalled. "Hitler was not a popular fellow in our household, even before the war. But on the other hand, I was fairly insulated from the horrors of the war. . . . I spent time drawing Grumman Avengers shooting down Stukas."68 "Fairly insulated" is correct. Rachel, Cari says, "above all wanted to protect Carl from the horrors of war. . . . She had an extraordinarily difficult time dealing with World War II and the Holocaust. This was something that was never talked about, essentially, that I can recall. . . . We had relatives who were slaughtered."69 By shielding Carl's eyes from the ongoing apocalypse, Rachel ensured that he would grow up an optimist. Emotionally, that optimism would be his greatest strength; intellectually, it would be his greatest liability. It was a mental blinder that kept him politically naive until he was in his fifties, when he finally opened his eyes and faced the dragon in his mental Eden: the nuclear age, the threat of global annihilation. Carl inherited this mixed legacy from Rachel.
"I wouldn't say she was ugly or plain," Gritz says of Rachel. "You wouldn't give her a second look, but you wouldn't say, 'Oooh, she's funny-looking.' " Rachel frequented a beauty salon run by Gritz's father. Sometimes she brought Carl. "She dressed nicely— a skirt, makeup, her hair coiffed. She took good care of herself." While Rachel submitted herself to Mr. Gritz's handiwork, Carl and Robert played outside. "Cops and robbers, Americans versus the Nazis, and so on." Young Carl was "well built— very athletic," in contrast to the exercise-averse, skinny adult he would become.
Sagan "kept his nose in the air" and had little to do with most children, Gritz recalled. "He was aloof—' standoffish' is the best description. Head in the clouds. . . . I think his mother inculcated in him an idea that they were somehow better than the riffraff in the street. . . . I could speak to him about things I couldn't speak [about] to my other friends. My relationship with my other friends was almost one-dimensional— there was no intellectual or cultural interaction. But with Carl, it was on different levels."70
Sagan's parents were liberal Democrats.71 That was nothing unusual in the Brooklyn of that day, where FDR was second only to Moses and where many neighbors were farther left. (Gritz recalls assuming that Carl's parents weren't Communists simply because they didn't greet friends as "comrade." ) This politically lively atmosphere nurtured Sagan's lifelong liberalism. Also, the culture tolerated oddballs (to quote Irving Howe: "Attitudes of tolerance, feelings that one had to put up with one's cranks, eccentrics, idealists, and extremists, pervaded the Jewish community" ).72 This tolerance may explain Sagan's adult willingness to converse calmly with, rather than to eviscerate, his ideological opposites— from pseudoscientists to theologians to militarists.
Sagan's parents, too, knew the fine art of restraint: "I never saw his parents lay a hand on him," Gritz says. "He was an only child for a long time. He was the apple of their eye. He got a lot more from them than we did from our parents, materially speaking." The Sagans didn't have much money in the early days; Carl slept in his parents' bedroom. Yet Sam and Rachel managed to create a cultivated, upscale atmosphere. They even bought a small piano. Sagan recalled "a lively intellectual life.
. . . Both my father and mother read, there were wonderful arguments about politics and other matters, friends and visitors that I got to listen to [while] sitting in the corner. We had Shakespeare in the house."73 Other boys in the neighborhood built toy ray guns "out of old orange crates," Gritz says, but Carl "didn't have to do that; his parents would buy [toys] for him." A half-century later, Sagan wrote evocatively about the day that his parents bought him a pricey electric train with tracks and a headlight.
Yet Sagan was not spoiled. He was, in fact, unusually deferential to his parents. This amused his friends. "Carl called his father 'Father' and his mother 'Mother,' " Gritz says. "Nobody did that in those days! Your mother was 'Ma,' your father was 'Dad' or 'Pa.' People laughed at him because it was peculiar." Sagan also pronounced aunt "ahhnt"— more grounds for neighborhood merriment. When Carl told Gritz, "My mother said I have to be home by three o'clock," Carl left in time, Gritz recalls. "He was a very obedient person, a very conforming child to his parents' wishes, which we [other boys] were not."
Still, fires burned inside Sagan. He permitted a lucky few to feel their warmth. Gritz recalls how they cooed over a deck of "French postcards"— playing cards displaying naked women. They also shared more sophisticated interests. For one thing, they listened to classical records together; Sagan was a real aficionado of the musical masters. "My mother had classical records and an old wind-up phonograph," Gritz says. "We listened to classical music together; we enjoyed that very much. [The Sagans] had a record of Toscanini playing the Rossini overture to William Tell with the famous finale, the 'Lone Ranger' music." Decades later, Sagan's passion for the classics would be reflected in his choices of music to be included on the Voyager record, bound for the stars. "We also listened to the radio together— Captain Midnight and Superman. Sagan was very big into Superman." Gritz recalls that in one of their favorite shows (from his description, it was probably Superstition), mysteries, especially occult ones, prove to have simple, logical explanations. Did Superstition reinforce Sagan's fledgling skeptical tendencies?
The boys also experimented with lenses to make objects appear closer. Coincidentally, Sagan had begun to wonder about the stars: what were they? He recalled one winter in Brooklyn when he was five years old. The stars, he said,

seemed to me different. They just weren't like everything else.
And so I asked other kids what they were. . . . They said things like "they're lights in the sky, kid."
I could tell they were lights in the sky, but what were they— little electric bulbs on long black wires? . . . I asked my parents, they didn't know. I asked friends of my parents, they didn't know.
[His mother suggested:] "I've just gotten you your first library card. Take the streetcar to the New Utrecht branch of the New York Public Library and find a book. . . . [The answer] has to be in a book."
I went to the library. I asked the librarian for a book on the stars. She came back and gave me a book. I opened it. It was filled with pictures of people like Jean Harlow and Clark Gable.
I was humiliated. I gave it back to her and said, "This wasn't the kind of stars I had in mind." She thought this was hilarious, which humiliated me further. She then went and got the right kind of book. I took it— a simple kid's book. I sat down on a little chair— a pint-sized chair— and turned the pages until I came to the answer.
And the answer was stunning. It was that the Sun was a star but really close. The stars were suns, but so far away they were just little points of light. . . . And while I didn't know the [inverse] square law of light propagation or anything like that, still, it was clear to me that you would have to move that Sun enormously far away, further away than Brooklyn [for the stars to appears as dots of light]. . . .
The scale of the universe suddenly opened up to me. [It was] kind of a religious experience. [There] was a magnificence to it, a grandeur, a scale which has never left me. Never ever left me.74

By the time Carl and Robert were six or seven, they found that by holding two lenses in the right positions, they "could see the craters on the Moon," Gritz recalls. They also studied "the red colors of Mars." The boys broadened their astronomical education by visiting the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and its famous Hayden Planetarium. The displays included meteorites, rocks from space. One imagines them standing awestruck before these celestial oddities. Their very solidity proved what Sagan would later emphasize in lectures: space is a place.
Carl Sagan later wrote about his childhood trips to the museum. "I was transfixed by the dioramas— lifelike representations of animals and their habitats all over the world. Penguins on the dimly lit Antarctic ice; okapi in the bright African veldt; a family of gorillas, the male beating his chest, in a shaded forest glade; an American grizzly bear standing on his hind legs, ten or twelve feet tall, and staring me right in the eye."75 Like many children, Sagan became fascinated by dinosaurs and read all he could about them.76
Popular culture reinforced Sagan's growing interest in science. His parents had taken him to see the 1939 New York World's Fair and Walt Disney's film Fantasia, both of which excited him about different aspects of science (the latter included a dinosaur sequence).
Sagan was also a sports buff. Contrary to stereotypes about Jewish intellectuals as Woody Allenish nebbishes, the New York Jewish community encouraged an interest in sports, especially basketball and baseball. Baseball players like Sandy Koufax (Brooklyn's own) and Moe Berg (Princeton grad, spied for the Allies during World War II) symbolized what Jews could achieve in America.77 Carl "was really a fanatic Yankee fan," Gritz says. "We could recite the batting averages of all the guys on the team."
Indeed, numbers enthralled Sagan, especially big ones. At age eight, the future author of Billions and Billions had the "childish compulsion to write in sequence all the integers from 1 to 1,000. We had no pads of paper, but my father offered up the stack of gray cardboards he had been saving from when his shirts were sent to the laundry." His mother interrupted the project: Carl had to bathe. The boy protested. Supportive in ways unimagined by Dr. Spock, Sam offered to continue writing the numbers while his son washed. "By the time I emerged, he was approaching 900, and I was able to reach 1,000 only a little past my ordinary bedtime. The magnitude of large numbers has never ceased to impress me."78 The Sagans also subsidized Carl's growing interest in chemistry by buying him chemistry sets, with literally explosive results.79

How Did Sagan become interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life? It would be satisfying to report that he traced his interest to Orson Welles's notorious "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast of Halloween 1938. Welles and his radio actors depicted a Martian invasion of Grovers Mill, New Jersey, as if it were really happening— as if New Jersey were under assault by Martians, armed to their tentacles with ray guns and poison gas. Unfortunately for biographers, Sagan was four years old at that time. He never mentioned having heard it. It might even have been past his bedtime. Still, the resulting brouhaha— front-page press coverage, exaggerated reports of attempted suicides and riots— tells us something about the mood of the era.80 While most astronomers scoffed at talk of Martians, the public assumed they might indeed exist.
Is it a coincidence that belief in Martians surged in the late nineteenth century, along with belief in ghosts and otherworldly "ectoplasm," while traditional religions waned?81 Enter Percival Lowell, a member of a distinguished Boston family. He was a diplomat, experienced in the courts of the Far East, and an elegant, rather romantic writer. On the brink of age forty, Lowell abandoned the diplomatic corps to found an astronomical observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, bankrolled by family money. There, from the early 1890s until his death in 1916, he used his refractor to sketch Mars and its "long, thin" lines—" a mesh of lines and dots like a lady's veil." He claimed the lines were "canals" built by a dying race of Martians. (He was inspired by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who in 1877 first saw the lines and called them "canali" [channels], which was mistranslated into English as "canals." ) Their goal: to channel water from the polar caps to famine-stricken farmlands. Lowell wrote several enjoyable books about his observations, gave rousing public speeches, chatted with reporters— there was a touch of the adult Carl Sagan about him.82 After his demise, most astronomers dismissed the "canals" as optical illusions. Still, the mass media, especially science-fiction pulp magazines, kept alive the legend of the Martian canals. It was the UFO fad of its era, impermeable to scientific scorn. According to Sagan, by age ten he was steeped in the "romantic and wonderful" legends of the canals.83
Cultural historians and social psychologists might read all kinds of meanings into Lowell's vision of the ill-fated red planet. The late nineteenth century was, after all, the great age of terrestrial canal-building: the Suez, Panama, and other grand waterways were in planning or under construction. And throughout the millennia, humans have projected earthly images onto the stars, seeing human and animal shapes in the constellations, perceiving a "face" on the Moon.84 So why shouldn't an age of great engineers imagine canals on Mars? Lowell might also have projected onto Mars the fear he perhaps shared with other fin de siècle, wealthy, New England– bred white Protestant males that their "genteel" breed would be swamped by the swelling tide of poor, illiterate, non-Protestant, Eastern European (often Jewish) immigrants (like Sam Sagan).85 Perhaps that is why Lowell wrote so poignantly about the frantic inhabitants of the fourth planet. Modern SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) buffs claim that galactic aliens have super- technologies indistinguishable from magic. Likewise, Lowell assumed that the Martians were superior to us:

A mind of no mean order would seem to have presided over the [canal] system we see,— a mind certainly of considerably more comprehensiveness than that which presides over the various departments of our own public works. Party politics, at all events, have had no part in them; for the system is planet wide. Quite possibly, such Martian folk are possessed of inventions of which we have not dreamed, and with them electrophones and kinetoscopes are things of a bygone past, preserved with veneration in museums as relics of the clumsy contrivances of the simple childhood of the race. Certainly, what we see hints at the existence of beings who are in advance of, not behind us, in the journey of life.

Yet the Martians were doomed.

The drying-up of the planet is certain to proceed until its surface can support no life at all. Slowly but surely time will snuff it out. When the last ember is thus extinguished, the planet will roll a dead world through space, its evolutionary career forever ended.86

Carl Sagan was eight when he decided that extraterrestrials exist. Since stars are other suns (he reasoned), then they might have planets— perhaps inhabited ones. He might have been nudged toward this conclusion by a news story in early 1943. That January, news media publicized an article in the Astrophysical Journal reporting a possible discovery of extrasolar planet (a planet that orbits another star). Astronomers Dirk Reuyl and Erik Holmberg of the University of Virginia said they had detected an unusual wobble in the absolute motion of a star, 70 Ophi-uchi. They attributed the wobbling to the back-and-forth gravitational tug of a huge object, ten times the mass of Jupiter, as it orbited the star. Was it a planet?87
In the early twentieth century, extrasolar planets were thought to be extremely rare. The leading concept of planetary formation was various "tidal" hypotheses. According to these, long ago the Sun almost collided with another star. During the close encounter, the Sun ejected hot gases. The gases condensed into Earth and other planets. Space is so vast that stellar near collisions are very rare; therefore, according to the astronomer James Jeans, extrasolar planets must also be very rare. And if there are no extrasolar planets, then there can be no aliens outside the solar system.88 In June 1934, just before Sagan's birth, the astronomer Henry Norris Russell of Princeton University wrote an article for Scientific American entitled "Fading Belief in Life on Other Planets." In Olaf Stapledon's visionary tale Star Maker, written in the 1930s, a traveler journeys through a James Jeans  like cosmos and laments: "The appalling desert of darkness and barren fire, the huge emptiness so sparsely prickled with scintillations, the colossal futility of the whole universe, hideously oppressed me."89
But tidal hypotheses soon fell out of favor. Russell's graduate student, Lyman Spitzer Jr., showed that the solar ejecta would be too unstable to condense into planets. In the 1940s, astronomers returned to a modified version of a much older theory of planetary formation, the nebular hypothesis. This hypothesis held that the Sun, Earth, other planets, and their moons coalesced from a primordial cloud of dust and gases. Such clouds pervade the galaxy; presumably, they are continually collapsing into new planetary systems. Hence extrasolar planets should be common. And aliens, too? In 1943, Reuyl and Holmberg's "discovery" of an extrasolar planet (later disproven) received a fair amount of press coverage. It might have been a factor in Sagan's decision that aliens exist.
Another factor was Edgar Rice Burroughs. When Sagan was ten, a friend introduced him to Burroughs's writings. Nowadays, Burroughs is mainly remembered as the creator of Tarzan, the ape-man. But Burroughs was also the George Lucas of his day, a prolific author of fabulous outerspace romances set on Mars, Venus, the Moon, and other worlds. Sagan found these tales of exotic extraterrestrial worlds teeming with other-worldly creatures fascinating.
Burroughs was born in 1875, the son of a Union soldier who became a Chicago businessman. The boy yearned for a life of adventure. At age twenty-one, he served with the 7th U.S. Cavalry at Fort Grant, Arizona. While in Arizona, he might have learned about Lowell's Mars research at his Flagstaff observatory. Burroughs chased Apaches; otherwise, his dreams of glory came to nothing. By 1911, at age thirty-six, he was back in Chicago, a financial failure, selling pencil sharpeners and pawning his wife's jewelry. On a whim, he began writing a fantasy story, "Under the Moons of Mars." It told about a soldier-cowboy who traveled to the red planet. In 1912 he sold the tale to All-Story magazine for $400, a lot of money in those days. Many more stories followed. Then books— stacks of them. He was a writing machine. He became wealthy. He settled in southern California, where his Tarzan stories were made into films with Johnny Weissmuller and other actors. The town of Tarzana is named after Burroughs's most famous creation.
Burroughs's Mars novels are not science fiction per se. Rather, they mingle elements of Wild West tales and "sword and sorcery" literature. The hero is John Carter, a Virginia gentleman who became a Confederate soldier. After Appomattox, he heads west to become a cowboy. While in the Arizona Territory, he hides in a cave to escape Apache attackers. For some reason, he undergoes a psychic experience in which "there was a momentary feeling of nausea, a sharp click as of the snapping of a steel wire. . . ." He looked down and saw his body on the cave floor. His soul left the cave, looked skyward, and was "drawn with the suddenness of thought through the trackless immensity of space." After "an instant of extreme cold and utter darkness . . . I opened my eyes upon a strange and weird landscape." He was standing on the surface of Mars. Various adventures followed— encounters with many-armed aliens, rescuing the beautiful Martian princess, and so on.
Young Carl was captivated. He even tried to repeat Carter's spiritual voyage to Mars. As he recalled: "[Carter] was able to transport himself to the planet Mars by standing in an open field and sort of spreading out his arms and wishing. At least that's as close as I could get to the method. And at an early age, eight or nine, I tried very hard to put the Carter method to the experimental test. But no matter how hard I tried, it failed— perhaps not entirely to my surprise, but I thought there was always a chance."90

The World of Science Fiction became science reality in August 1945. The United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. Hundreds of thousands of people died; countless more suffered long-term illness. One of Sagan's friends explained to him why the bombs exploded: because they were made of atoms. For all its horrific potential, an incredible new source of power was now available for once-unthinkable feats— perhaps even spaceflight? Science-fiction magazines began depicting astronauts cruising the cosmos, borne by atom-powered rockets. Sagan quit fantasizing about soul travel to Mars and began thinking about roc kets.91
"He was tall and gangly as a boy," recalls Rabbi Morrison Bial, now in his eighties, who trained Sagan for his bar mitzvah ceremony. "He was relatively quiet. But once you began talking to him, these things came out of him, [whereas] most of the boys had nothing particular to say. . . . At age twelve he knew more about stars and constellations and dinosaurs than I did." The ceremony was held at Beth Sholom— Peoples Temple (now Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom) at Bay Parkway and Benson Avenue in Bensonhurst. Bial has instructed countless bar mitzvah pupils over the decades; Sagan is one of the few he vividly remembers. (Another one, by coincidence, is radioastronomer Paul Horowitz, a leading figure in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.)92
The Second World War had boosted the Sagan family's fortunes. The garment industry boomed (soldiers needed uniforms). Thanks to cousin George, Sam became manager of the New York Girl Coat Company's factory in Perth Amboy, New Jersey; the family bought a house at 576 Bryant Street in the nearby town of Rahway. Carl transferred from David A. Boody Junior High School in Brooklyn to Rahway High School, which he entered in September 1948.93 Compared to Brooklyn, Rahway had few Jews. It was an industrial town— smoky, dirty, smelly, not particularly cultivated. (Nowadays it is best known as the site of a major prison and of Merck Pharmaceuticals.) Carl often rode around town on his Schwinn bicycle.
Rahway High was a "tan brick, nondescript building built around a courtyard, three stories high," recalls Sagan's fellow student Deborah M. Shillaber. "We were in the same math class. I was the only girl. He was impressed (a) that there was a girl in the class and (b) that there was someone that could get the same grades he could get." She laughed. "We were both straight-A students in everything.
"He was so bright! All of us immediately sensed that. He made comments in class that would have let us know he was bright— which would have turned off some children who were afraid of him or awed by him. 'Arrogant' is a good way [to describe him]. I was almost going to say 'pompous.' "94
School frustrated Sagan in part because of his intelligence. As an adult he recalled being bored in high school because he wasn't challenged by the work and his teachers' lectures were uninspiring. His teachers, however, were alert enough to appreciate Sagan's brains. He was a mythology buff; once, he "covered every [black]board in the entire classroom, of which there were many, in detail about the histories of the Greek and Roman gods," his sister, Cari, remembers. "Right then and there, the administration of the high school said to my parents, 'This kid ought go to a school for gifted children, he has something really remarkable.' My parents chose not to do that. He went to Rahway High School. They thought he'd get the education he needed there." Money might have been an obstacle: the school for the gifted was expensive, perhaps costlier than Sam and Rachel could afford.95
Shillaber says Carl "was our basketball scorekeeper and 'statistician' for the boys' basketball [games]. We traveled on the boys' basketball bus because I was a cheerleader." The other cheerleaders, perky and voluptuous in their red, black, and white uniforms, were more interested in the basketball players, and huddled beside them on the bus. So Shillaber and Carl sat together. She remembers him as being physically well-built, "a rather imposing presence," but "a bit awkward, a bit of a loner.
"When we went to out-of-town games, we sat together and argued over a book [we had] read or what had gone on in a class that day. There was no sexual interest [between us] whatsoever. At the time, I was going with a guy at Harvard, so I was not interested in anybody in the high school." She "didn't find [Carl] particularly attractive. [He was] almost nerdy! He was not unattractive physically, [but] I don't recall he ever made any overtures to any girls."
He told her about astronomy. "He was so gung-ho about his desire to learn astronomy. His eyes lit up when he would start to talk about this. It went over like a lead balloon with me. {But] it was something to let him talk about when [we were] on a bus for a long ride." There weren't many bright males at Rahway High, Shillaber notes; few students went on to college, and most of them to a state school.
Shillaber is now a widow and a volunteer middle-school librarian. "I was not born in the era when women had to have a career," she sighs. "I could never settle on what to do with my life." Carl Sagan— male, driven, and insatiably curious— would never have that problem.96

Sagan Was President of the Rahway High chemistry club, which met on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Meanwhile, at home on Bryant Street, he maintained his own basement laboratory. "My prize piece of equipment was a Leibig condenser." He used dangerous chemicals such as hydrofluoric acid, and conducted research in a "completely unsystematic" way. He used cardboard cutouts of atoms to teach himself about atomic valence states. Thanks to the cutouts, "you could actually build up 'molecules' in two dimensions. . . . I found that about as interesting as doing [chemical] experiments." This was an early hint that he would incline toward theoretical work, not lab experimentation.
Another hint was his failed attempt, at age twelve or thirteen, while still in Brooklyn, to impress a slightly older girl and her sister. He showed the girls his basement lab. His chemical equipment glistened. During their visit, he "succeeded in blowing up a test tube." The girl's sister ran out in horror, "holding her eyes. I thought I'd done something terrible. But I didn't." The worst consequence was a black stain on the ceiling. A theoretician in the making.97
But would he actually become a scientist? He was taunted by the memory of an encounter with his maternal grandfather, Louis Gruber. Mr. Gruber was a very practical man. He had survived poverty and oppression; talk of stars made no sense to him. Through a translator, grandpa asked Carl what he wanted to do for a living. Carl said he hoped to become an astronomer. The grandfather replied impatiently: "Yes, but how will you make a living?"
A shadow of doubt arose in Sagan's mind. Were people actually paid to be astronomers? He dreaded going into some dull workaday job. "Some summers I stayed at home, resolutely refusing to go and work in my father's factory, which was proposed to me— that seemed like death."98
A high school teacher set him straight. His sophomore biology instructor, Lee Yothers, said he was pretty sure that Harvard paid astronomer Harlow Shapley a salary, Sagan recalled. "That was a splendid day— when I began to suspect that if I tried hard I could do astronomy full-time, not just part-time."99
Yothers's good news came at an ideal time. In the late 1940s a new age was dawning. Scientists in New Mexico were launching surplus Nazi V-2 rockets to the fringe of space.100 The RAND Corporation in California was investigating the feasibility of space satellites. In January 1946, radar engineers with the Signal Corps near Belmar, New Jersey— about twenty miles from Brooklyn— bounced a radar signal off the Moon.101 A front-page story in the New York Times speculated that the technique might be used to communicate with other worlds.102
But would humanity survive long enough to realize such wonders? Other headlines were ominous: Winston Churchill warned that an "iron curtain" was descending over Eastern Europe; the Soviets developed their own atomic bomb; "Mr. X," writing in Foreign Affairs, called for "containing" the USSR; China went Communist; war began in Korea. Many adults despaired. The former utopian H. G. Wells announced that the end of the world was nigh and penned his grim farewell book, Mind at the End of Its Tether. 103 But Sagan was young and eager to see tomorrow. Amid the clanking of swords, he heard only the roar of distant rockets.
By that time, he had graduated from Burroughs's Mars novels to more sophisticated forms of science fiction. In 1947, while passing through a candy store, he discovered a magazine called Astounding Science Fiction. 104 The cover depicted a futuristic atomic power plant. He paid twenty-five cents for it, then sat down on an outdoor bench and began reading a short story—" Pete Can Fix It" by Raymond F. Jones.
The story stars a boy almost exactly Sagan's age at the time, thirteen-year-old Jack, the son of a nuclear physicist named Professor Grandin. The story opens as the Grandin family is driving on vacation across the American Southwest toward Los Angeles. Jack is a clever boy, the narrator notes: "The boy's intuition for mechanical and electrical tinkering was little short of genius. He . . . spoke of [subatomic particles] . . . with the same familiarity that others of his generation spoke of baseballs and Boy Scout hikes."
En route to L.A., the family sees a succession of road signs that declare: "Pete Can Fix It." They finally reach a filling station, "Pete's." Pete emerges. He is a gaunt, spooky-looking young man with strangely discolored skin who "moved stiffly as if from painfully arthritic joints." Unbeknownst to them, he is a visitor from a parallel Earth in an alternate universe. On that alternate Earth, a nuclear war had ravaged civilization. Using a mysterious gizmo, Pete stimulates the Grandins' brains so that they imagine they are seeing the ruins of his former planet, a devastated "parallel" Los Angeles. "As far as their eyes could see there were only skeletons of buildings, vast heaps of rubble and debris— and nowhere any life." Pete shows his customers these dreadful sights in hopes of preventing a similar nuclear holocaust on the Grandin family's Earth.
To educate people about nuclear war, Pete declares, one must scare them nearly to death. For "reasoning, argument, pleading will never keep man from pulling down the world about his own head. Only fear, terrible shattering fear of the consequences can persuade him to turn aside from self-destruction." He urges young Jack to follow his example: "Fear— fill the whole Earth with fear— fear of man's own evil."105 The plot is eerily significant, considering Sagan's later career as an antinuclear activist. As Sagan's friend Ronald Blum characterized it, Sagan's goal with the "nuclear winter" campaign was "his greatest gift to mankind— to scare the shit out of everybody. He should have gotten the Nobel Prize for it."106
Sagan later wrote that as a boy in the late 1940s, "Pete Can Fix It" introduced him to "the social implications of nuclear weapons. It got you thinking."107 He became a science-fiction fanatic. Sagan had literary ambitions of his own. His mother was a skilled writer and an articulate exponent; so was Carl. He read extensively on the subject of extraterrestrial life and memorized all the arguments in its favor. About age sixteen, he wrote (in pencil) a long essay on extraterrestrial life in a school notebook. Portions are reproduced below with spelling and grammatical errors intact.
Sagan began by emphasizing the sheer immensity of the cosmos:

Let us pause a moment to observe our universe. The group of stars, of which our sun is one, our galaxy, is known as the Milky Way. A conservative estimate places the number of stars in it at 300,000 million. Probably, it is at least 400,000,000,000 considering the multitude of undiscovered "dwarfs," "dark stars," and the like.
Within the range of the Hale telescope at Palomar are over a hundred million extragalactic nebulae which are galaxies similar to our own. Astronomers are convinced that our galaxy is little better than average in respect to total number of stars. Taking the conservative estimate of the previous paragraph, we arrive at the stupendous total of 30 quintillion (30,000,000,000,000,000,000) stars or another way, thirty million million million stars photographicable by man. And if this total is a bit overwhelming, to you, dear reader, [do you] know the estimated number of stars in the universe? No? Then sit down and loosen your collar button. The number in very round figures is somewhat more than one hundred seventy octillion (170,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) stars. This number is about 170 trillion times more than all the men, women, and children ever born on this planet since the first Homo Heidelbergensis evolved over a million years ago. Take every grain of sand on every beach on the Earth. Multiply it by ten. That number is now one-one hundredth the number of stars in the universe.
The reader now, perhaps, has some idea as to the immensity of the universe.

He alluded to the old tidal hypotheses of planetary formation, according to which planets had condensed from solar ejecta (" chunks," in Sagan's term). The tidal hypotheses implied that extrasolar planets were rare. Carl would have none of that. He assured his readers that

the Tidal Theory simply was incorrect. There are at least half a dozen glaring errors, probably more. Our knowledge of gravity and atomic physics reveals that if two stars travelling at several miles per second in different directions proximate close enough for a gravitational clash either (1) the larger would attract the smaller to it, resulting in a collossal cosmic explosion (i.e., a nova); (2) the smaller would become a satellite of the larger (i.e., a double star); (3) their respective orbits would be alterred, resulting in no immediate damage. . . . However, chunks would certainly not be extracted. Princeton's Dr. Henry Norris Russell has stated that if the alien sun did proximate close enough for tidal disruption to occur, it could hardly have provided the angular momentum the [solar] system now possesses. . . . Dr. [Lyman] Spitzer, at Yale Observatory has deduced that if extremely hot gas is extracted from a sun, it would not condense into planets and satellites, but, rather, diffuse explosively.108

Might extrasolar planets be inhabited? This question got him interested in biology. He read a popular work, Life on Other Worlds (1940) by Sir Harold Spencer Jones, the British Astronomer Royal. The book included a detailed discussion of organic molecules and environments conducive to life. Jones emphasized the crucial link between the chemical origin of life and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. "What is certain is that if suitable conditions exist, if there is an adequate supply of energy and if there is a suitable transformer for that energy, which can turn it into the chemical energy of carbon compounds, then the complex organic substances which form the basis of living cells not only can arise but will arise. . . . It seems reasonable to suppose that wherever in the Universe the proper conditions arise, life must inevitably come into existence" (emphasis added). Sagan's heart surely soared when he read that.
Sagan was even willing to allow for the possibility of life on a seemingly hostile, frigid, giant gas planet— Jupiter. Jones had written of the outer planets: "These dreary, remote, frozen wastes of the solar system are not worlds where we can hope to find life of any sort."109 But in his essay the young Sagan countered:

Today, human vanity, although not so much the Church, is again retarding scientific progress. For a reason which the author cannot fathom, few scientific journals will accept a paper for publication which bases its body upon, for example, a discussion that it is conceivable for a totally alien form of life to exist on a planet such as Jupiter. To the average reader, the preceding statement seems somewhat absurd if he is aware that a human being transported to Jupiter would be simultaneously asphyxiated, poisoned, frozen solid and crushed by his own weight. Nevertheless, it is entirely feasible for a form of life to exist on Jupiter as I will prove below.

What was Sagan's "proof" ? Unfortunately, his unfinished essay never returns to this issue. That's a shame, for Sagan, as an adult, would spend much time investigating the feasibility of Jovian life.
The essay is obviously the work of a budding popular writer. Sagan favors short, direct, subject-predicate sentences. He employs down-to-earth analogies that would tantalize lay readers. For example, he discusses how natural selection "selects" favorable mutations:

Picture a Devonian Period fish. He lived about 350 million years ago. He is gigantic, grotesque, and carnivorous. He has a number of baby fish. One, upon birth, can extract oxygen from air. Other fishes cannot. Therefore, this newborn fish is a mutation. However, other fish can extract oxygen from sea water. The newborn fish can only extract oxygen from air. He is born in sea water. Hence, he is asphxiated [sic].
. . . Now picture another Devonian Period fish. He has a number of baby fish. One, upon birth, can extract oxygen from air. Other fishes cannot. Therefore, this newborn fish is a mutation. If he were to be born underwater, he would die at birth. However, his egg rises to the surface. He is born above water. He experiments with his fins. Soon he swims away. He reaches land and drags himself upon the beach. . . . These . . . are no longer fish; they are amphibians. The Carboniferous Period has begun.

Which brings him back to his key point: aliens surely exist.

Non-injurious mutations have occurred on this planet [Earth]. They are occurring on this planet. They will keep on occurring on this planet. Now why in the name of logic can't they occur on another planet?

"In the name of logic." As his later life would show, this could have been his credo.
What would the extraterrestrials look like? In science-fiction magazines of the 1940s, they either looked absurdly human (like crew-cut bankers in silver suits) or incredibly weird (multi-tentacled, multi-eyed, and the like).110 This question forced Sagan to confront the concept of biological evolution. Evolutionary biologists had long debated whether evolution "converges" or "diverges." By the former, they meant a tendency to generate similar-looking life forms in like environments. By the latter, they meant a tendency to generate a wide diversity of life forms, rarely if ever repeating the same models. The history of life offers examples of both convergence and divergence. For example, nature has (many biologists believe) "re-invented" the eye numerous times; hence it is an example of convergence. But kangaroos imply divergence: they are found only in Australia.111
Perhaps inspired by the bizarre alien menageries of science fiction, Sagan opted for divergence— with one crucial caveat. On the one hand, he believed that physically speaking, extraterrestrials would hardly resemble us at all. They might not even have similar biochemistry (organic molecules based on carbon). Quoting again from his notebook essay:

"Life as we know it" is principally any organism with a carbon-hydrogen-oxygen-nitrogen metabolism. That is to say, without oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon, life as we know it is impossible.
. . . [But:] Almost beyond the shadow of a doubt, there is life as we don't know it. Yes, the author is speaking of a life-form that does not possess a C-O-H-N metabolism; that does not demand Terran [terrestrial] standards of maxima and minima in regard to atmospheric pressure and constituents, gravity, temperature and 'toxics'; and that does not look, smell, or feel like anything we know of . . . [that is] utterly alien.

On the other hand (as Sagan argued later, as an adult), he believed that life ultimately advances toward the biological function that humans call "intelligence." Intelligence enhances survival (he believed); hence evolution favors it. Hence aliens not only exist, they are "intelligent" in a human or neohuman sense of the word. Therefore we might be able to communicate with them (for example, through mathematical code), even if they are physically as different from us as bananas or coffeepots.
This is as good a time as any to raise an important point, one that will be significant later in this book. The modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is based on the assumption that intelligence is a convergent biological trait— that is, a trait generated over and over again on many worlds. If it isn't, then there's no one out there intelligent enough to "talk" to! Indeed, anti-SETI scientists might accuse SETI advocates (like Sagan) of trying to have their evolutionary cake and eat it too; that is, of accepting the randomness and infrequent repeatability of all kinds of biological traits, save one: intelligence. As if the medieval "great chain of being"112 were still in business, SETI enthusiasts treat intelligence as the ultimate goal of all evolution, as the apex toward which life converges on all worlds.
Yet on Earth, only one of Earth's billions of estimated species, Homo sapiens, has ever developed anything like the intelligence of humans. (Chimps playing with colored chips and counting up to nine won't cut it.) And why (critics ask) should the universe be any different? The cosmos might be crawling with life, yet none of it might care to, or be able to, "communicate" with us, any more than we can, or wish to, "communicate" with tapeworms, aardvarks, or dung beetles.113
As we shall see, the adult Sagan's insistence on the inevitability of cosmic intelligence is important partly because it undergirded his quasi-religious belief in alien super-beings. He believed that these creatures, perhaps dwelling in other galaxies, were benevolent and might help us to solve our terrestrial problems. Viewed from a psychological perspective, they were secular versions of the gods and angels he had long since abandoned. His secular "faith" stemmed from the choice he made when he reached the two paths diverging in the evolutionary yellow wood— the paths of divergence and convergence. Assuming intelligence to be a universal phenomenon, he chose the latter path, and that would make all the difference.
Sagan's notebook concludes with a few scattered, intriguing inserts— for example, a long calculation that concludes: "A point on the equator of a globe ten feet in diameter must make 31,293,864 revolutions per/second to attain a speed equivalent to the speed of light." At the end of the notebook, the teenager recorded this quote from Albert Einstein: "Common sense is actually nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down in the mind prior to the age of 18."

A Would-Be Careerist must be not merely smart and hardworking. He or she must also make the right contacts— must befriend influential people. Sagan learned this fact early. When he became interested in space travel, he sought information from top experts. Another child might have settled for a trip to the school library. Not Sagan. He wanted to talk to the Ph.D.'s, the engineers— the rocket-builders themselves.
For example, he suspected (as many did after the invention of nuclear weapons) that the first space rockets would be atomic-powered. The Fairchild Engine and Airplane Company was working on nuclear-powered aircraft in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He wondered: Were these aircraft the ancestors of atomic rockets? So Sagan wrote to the company. An official wrote back, stating that the project was "highly classified" and no further information was available. Meanwhile, a fledgling military think tank called RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, had recently designed a model for a space satellite. Sagan wrote to RAND, too, seeking literature, but RAND turned him down perfunctorily.114 Sagan was sixteen, restless to escape New Jersey, to punch a hole in the sky. Didn't anyone care?
He struck gold, though, when he wrote to astronomers. One was Robert S. Richardson, who worked at the brand-new Palomar Observatory in faraway southern California. There, under skies not yet obscured by smog and the electrical glow of shopping malls, observers used the world's biggest telescope to survey the cosmos. Richardson also wrote science fiction, which pleased Sagan: it "suggested to me an open mind." More decisive, perhaps, was Sagan's correspondence with another sometime science-fiction writer, the famed astronomer Donald Menzel of Harvard.115 Their correspondence paid off: slightly more than a decade later, Menzel would invite Sagan to join the Harvard faculty.

Stage Presence— Carl Sagan had it. He was tall, and oddly attractive, with dark hair, piercing eyes, and an easy grin; well-spoken, with a deep voice, and erudite; and capable of charm and warmth. Briefly, he caught the acting bug. He appeared in both the junior and senior class plays. The latter performance, held November 17, 1950, was of James Thurber's comedy The Goose Hangs High. According to the 1951 yearbook, "A complicated plot concerning the financial troubles of the Ingals family held the suspense until the very end."116 After the play, Rachel threw a party for Carl and the cast. With typical cleverness, she made a cake in the shape of a goose. The goose's neck broke, so Rachel supported it with a ribbon attached to the ceiling.117
Across the nation, wiry antennae were sprouting from rooftops. The age of television had arrived, and Sagan wanted to be a part of it. According to his 1951 yearbook, he participated in a "Television Quiz Team" on WCBS-TV in New York. The yearbook ran a photo of Sagan beside this caption:

WAAT Radio Forum
On April 25, Carl Sagan, representing Rahway High School, participated in the Junior Town Meeting of the Air. Sponsored by the Kresge-Newark Department Store, and broadcast on station WAAT, the topic of the forum was "Is it socially desirable to televise investigations?" Charles Brown was alternate.

Sagan belonged to the high school debate club. In his junior year, he was the "American Education Week Essay Contest Winner." In his senior year, he placed second in the American Legion oratorical contest.118 He was not averse to controversy. According to his third wife, Ann Druyan, he told her that in high school he had been denied victory in a Columbus Day speech contest because he dared to say the then-unsayable: Columbus's exploration of the New World wasn't necessarily a good thing.119 It opened the door to European exploitation of the New World, with disastrous consequences for the natives.120 In Sagan's 1951 high school yearbook, his class photo appears on the same page as those of seven other males. His list of activities is more than twice as long as any of the rest. In his senior year he was sports editor for the largely female journalism club, which every two weeks published its newspaper, the Wawawhack, a small broadsheet. He was also president of both the French club and the chemistry club, and a member of the National Honor Society, the literary club, the debating club, the senior play, the chorus, and the Key club. Earlier in high school he had belonged to the photography club and the biology club. At his Brooklyn junior high school, he had been president of the science club. Although his Rahway classmate Deborah Shillaber recalls Sagan as a loner, he appears to have been well known: the senior class voted him both the male Class Brain and the male Most Likely to Succeed.
Clearly, he was a workaholic in the making. Of the seven other boys on that page in the yearbook, only two list career ambitions— one to be a carpenter, the other a mechanic. Under Sagan's photo are these words:

Astronomy research is Carl's main aim,
An excellent student, he should achieve fame.

Carl Sagan Was Part of a vanguard generation. Previously, anti-Semitic bigotry had blocked Jews from many careers, including academia and science. As historian David Hollinger has pointed out, in the 1930s it was considered amazing when Lionel Trilling won an assistant professorship at Columbia University.121 In the year of Sagan's birth, no less a figure than T. S. Eliot wrote that for Christianity to thrive, "Any large number of free-thinking Jews" is "undesirable."122 Then came World War II and the Holocaust, which shook the conscience of the Western world. American anti-Semitism waned. Sagan's generation of Jews, the children of impoverished immigrants, surged into the professions, into academia and science. Just as today's immigrant Asian-American parents push their young to study hard, to succeed, to make the family proud— in short, to prove they are "good Americans"— so did the immigrant Jewish parents of the Progressive era. Their pushing paid off: their young would soon constitute much of the American intelligentsia. In one of Sagan's college classes, as his friend Peter Pesch laughingly recalls, "the instructor was assigning lab partners and he'd be reading out these names—' Blum, Goldberg, Goldstein, Finklestein,' and then, all of a sudden, 'Cecil, Nanny,'— and somebody would shout out, 'Hey kid, don't you know we have a quota here?' "123
To choose a college, many young people consult with a high school guidance counselor. Not Sagan; he traveled to Princeton and spoke with one of the nation's leading astrophysicists, Lyman Spitzer Jr. (Spitzer helped to pioneer much "Big Science," including thermonuclear fusion research and the Hubble Space Telescope.) As Spitzer listened, Sagan explained that he wanted to be an astronomer who used space rockets. Did that mean he should take college engineering classes, as well as astronomy? "Up until then, I had thought this was necessary— another holdover from the fiction I'd been reading, in which the rich amateur built his own spaceship," Sagan recalled. Spitzer assured him that there was no reason an astronomer had to know "every nut and bolt of a spacecraft" in order to use it.124Leave the engineering to the engineers.
Sagan was intrigued by the catalog from the University of Chicago. "Inside was a picture of football players fighting on a field, and under it the caption 'If you want a school with good football, don't come to the University of Chicago.'
"Then there was a picture of some drunken kids, and the caption 'If you want a school with a good fraternity life, don't come to the University of Chicago.' It sounded like the place for me."125 He applied and was accepted. (The school offered him a scholarship, which "made the decision extremely easy." )126 Sagan graduated from Rahway High School on June 5, 1951. That autumn he entered the University of Chicago. Less than a decade earlier on that campus, Prof. Enrico Fermi and his colleagues had secretly built the first nuclear reactor beneath the stands of a squash court.127 Thus began the nuclear age, with all its dark prospects. Sagan entered college in the middle of the Korean War, the first major, if indirect, clash of the superpowers. The United States and the Soviet Union faced off over alternate visions of the ideal society. To many, compromise was unthinkable. Soon, some warned, the skies would rain atomic-tipped missiles. To remain an optimist, it helped to be very foolish or very young.

Table of Contents



The Dungeon.

High Ground.



Mars and Manna.

Mr. X.

Gods Like Men.

The Shadow Line.

The Dragons of Eden.




The Value of L.

Look Back, Look Back.


The Night Freight.




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Carl Sagan 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
With a biographer like this, who needs enemies? I learned little from this book about Carl Sagan but found more than enough comments by those who resented him. Davidson seems intent on portraying Sagan as the Doctor Seuss of science, a Daffy Duck of cosmology, rather than the visionary and electrifying genius he truly was. When Davidson tires of quoting critics (rarely), he even describes the landmark 'Cosmos' series in demeaning terms, attributing its success to Sagan's 'quirky yet compelling persona' and showmanship. This is a tragically shallow book that missed a wonderful opportunity to tell us much about Carl Sagan the man, his real thinking, and where his magic came from.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this lengthy, thoroughly researched book a good read, even though the author had an annoying habit of making too many repetitive comments. Note to the Author: We can remember what you said on page 50, you don't have to repeat it 5 more times in the book. Ah, but I digress. Did I find that Sagan had skeletons in the closet? Yes, including a claim of wife-beating. Was I surprised he was egotistical? No, especially the way he lived for self-promotion. The latter cannot be such a character trait to condemn the man since very few ego-less people ever aspire to the publishing and television genius he demonstrated. I do not ask that biographies of the people I hold in some esteem be sugar-coated (and this one isn't). I learned long ago that successful people make enemies who are all too happy to talk about them after their demise. I simply ask that the biography be well documented which this book is with over 100 pages of source references at the end. I did not finish the book with the belief, stated elsewhere, that the author disliked Sagan. Rather, Sagan was portrayed at worst as short on hands-on science, but long on dreams and ideas. While hard scientists may fault this portion of his work, it is what endeared him to his ultimate true audience: the readers of his books and his television audience. Sagan had a gift for explaining complicated ideas to non-scientists. Was this a fault? Of course not. It was a gift. To date, no scientist has picked up his mantel with the masses.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I you want to understand the personality of this great scientist, here you will find a detailed, impartial and well balanced description of his life. His glorious moments, his charm, his love for astronomy, his achievements in science ...and in the other hand his flamboyant behavior, his selfishness and his fears. In short, Carl Sagan as a human being. Well documented, the author made his job investigating every source related to the scientist. I think this is an excelent book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Well written and informative look into the life of a very popular scientist. Carl Sagan is depicted as very human with all the accompanying weaknesses while still courting greatness in his actions and deeds.