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The man who brought stars closer

CARL SAGAN: A LIFE By Keay Davidson John Wiley & Sons 540 pp., $30

Let's face the bad stuff up front: Carl Sagan was no saint. He could be pompous, arrogant, inconsiderate, and self-absorbed. He took three tries to form a successful marriage. What's more, he smoked pot.

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But all that aside, he did more for the good of science generally - and for astronomy in particular - than any of the envious scientific colleagues who bad-mouthed him.

Sagan brought joy to hundreds of millions of people as he awakened their sense of cosmic wonder. By taking the issue to the people, he helped save NASA's bacon when a space-weary Congress was ready to trash the agency. He stood up for women's rights. He stood against using science to promote foolish militarism. He debunked pseudoscience while respecting the rights and dignity of those who hold such beliefs. He scared the bejabbers out of world leaders with the overstated theory of the "nuclear winter" that would doom humanity after an all-out nuclear war - a white lie that helped curb the arms race.

San Francisco Examiner science writer Keay Davidson skillfully portrays this many-faceted man. To read this entertaining biography is to realize that the bad stuff is interred with Sagan's bones. It is the good he did that lives after him.

Sagan's detractors claimed that he was more of a promoter than a scientist. That wasn't true in the deleterious sense those critics intended. But it was true in the positive sense of suggesting where Sagan's greatest talent lay.

Davidson has that pegged correctly when he says Sagan was a "very good" scientist, but not a "great" scientist - an assessment backed up by recounting Sagan's scientific accomplishments. These brought authority to Sagan's public outreach.

Davidson also notes that this outreach was not mere technocratic propaganda. He rightly calls Sagan "a scientific messiah ... [who] saw space exploration as an evolutionary leap forward, not merely as the latest feint in the chess game of superpowers."

Sagan - a self professed atheist - sought no comfort in religion. But may not the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, to which he was devoted, have served that purpose? The belief that intelligent life exists beyond Earth gripped Sagan from boyhood.

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On one level, the search is straightforward science. It addresses the key question of whether we are alone in a vast universe. Its pursuit spurs on important research in astronomy, biology, and planetary science.

On a less rational level, Sagan was not the only scientist to foster the hope that "advanced" civilization would transmit useful knowledge.

As Sagan matured and became concerned with Earth's environmental future, he recognized a powerful ally in religion. It brings moral might to the debate on how best to preserve our planetary habitat.

Sagan reached out even to creationists, whose dogma he rejected. He noted that we don't have to agree on origins to agree to preserve the "creation" we've inherited.

Davidson treats such nuances of Sagan's complex life with understanding and sympathy. This is a journalist's book, not the work of a scholarly biographer. Yet it does give a well rounded portrait of the man.

I have a personal caveat, however. Davidson states that Sagan first stood out as a science popularizer in the mid-1960s because "few US newspapers had full-time science reporters." Give us old timers a break, Keay. That was a heyday of newspaper science writing. There were a lot of us on the ground.

Because he talked to ordinary people rather than the scientific elite, because he made that elite's discoveries available to all humanity, and because he did advance the good of science, we owe a lot to this self-described "collection of water, calcium, and organic molecules called Carl Sagan."

*Robert C. Cowen writes regularly about science for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society