Kirkus Reviews:

"Poundstone (Prisoner's Dilemma, 1992, etc.) doesn’t whitewash Sagan's personal flaws but leaves the reader with added appreciation of just how rich his legacy was—and what a loss his early death was to us. A readable and comprehensive life of a fascinating subject."


"Impressively detailed yet always lucid"

Lynn Margulis, University of Massachusetts:

"Poundstone’s scintillating tale of the intellectually precocious but emotionally crippled Brooklyn boy who became the greatest science spokesman in history sparkles with originality. This spirited narrative of Sagan’s trajectory from University of Chicago physics student past his death, “Scintillation: A Biography of Carl Sagan” [the book’s original title] is a stellar and complete account. As Carl’s first wife who shares genes in common with Sagan’s three disinherited male offspring (50%, with two sons and 25% with his only grandson), I authentically testify to Poundstone’s competence, responsibility, veracity and scientific insight."

Frank Drake, The SETI Institute:

"Anyone who knew Carl will recognize Poundstone's biography as an accurate and very thorough presentation of a complex and productive life. It does not just illuminate the life of a great scientist and human being; it teaches us what talented people can and should do with their lives."

The Washington Post:

"[A]uthor William Poundstone cuts through the celebrity hype and reveals a scientist who was all too human. Sagan is portrayed as a man of contradictions. Some who knew him compared him to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He was passionate in his work and creatively imaginative in his scientific hypotheses, from possible life forms on other planets and communication with extraterrestrials to the potential threat of nuclear winter. He was charming, witty and poetic. Yet he could also be egotistical, self-absorbed, insecure and cruelly indifferent at times to his first two wives and their children. He stole a friend's fiancee to be his third wife (a marriage, by all accounts, that was a storybook romance for 15 years, until his death in 1996)."

Amazon Books:

"What recommends this biography most, though, isn't its completeness but its style: Poundstone has divided the 500-plus-page book into over 200 easily digestible, addictive little sections, each an entertaining or illuminating (or, often, laugh-out-loud) anecdote from Sagan's life."

Philip Morrison, in Scientific American:


Entertainment Weekly:

"Brainily vibrant . . . Poundstone captures both the black holes in Sagan's personal life (his failures as a husband and father) and the prodigious dimensions of Sagan's mind, energy, and imagination."

Los Angeles Times:

"Poundstone, a Los Angeles-based science writer, has written a crisp, sober-minded and well-organized assessment of a complicated life that left its imprint not only on the practice of planetary science but on the way in which scientists of all stripes today attempt to present their own stories to the world."

Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos may be ordered from and Barnes and Noble.

Table of Contents


Brooklyn 1934-48

The River Bug -- Samuel and Rachel -- Reality Check -- Carl and Carol.

Rahway 1948-51

High School -- Chemistry Set -- Carnegie Hall.

Chicago 1951-60

Hermann Muller -- A Vial With Non-Virgins -- Curious Pest -- Flying Saucers -- The Fermi Question -- Harold Urey -- Lynn Alexander -- Ice Bath -- Gerard Kuiper -- Lichens -- Peddling Without a License -- Newspaper of Record -- Marriage -- Joshua Lederberg -- Sputnik -- Dorion -- NASA -- Greenhouse Effect -- Life on Jupiter, Scientist Says.

Berkeley 1960-3

A Non-Reputable Game -- Mariner and Apollo -- A Trip to Oz -- Frank Drake -- Green Bank -- Drake Equation -- Dolphin Man -- IQ Test -- Symbiosis -- Wax and Wigglers -- Cover Story -- Kaleidoscope -- Firefly Tails.

Cambridge 1963-8

Talking Horse -- Projects of the Space Cadets -- "The Prey Runs to the Hunter" -- My So-Called Co-Author -- Isaac Asimov -- Divorce -- Flooded House -- Linda Salzman -- The Dead Planet -- James Pollack -- Winds of Mars -- CTA-102 -- Project Blue Book -- Expert Witness -- Antarctica -- Lester Grinspoon -- Mr. X -- The Numinous -- Bell Curves -- 2001 -- Wheel of Fortune -- As Cities Burned -- Tommy Gold -- Little Green Men -- A Jewish Wedding.

Ithaca 1968-76

Town Without Bad Taste -- Astronomy 101 -- Timothy Leary -- Student Radical -- Back Contamination -- Andromeda Strain -- Massachusetts General -- Moon Dust -- A Flying Saucer With Rivets -- Alien Abduction -- Folie á Deux -- Message in a Bottle -- Pornography in Space -- Viva Zapata -- Viking -- Shoes for Shklovskii -- Hurtling Moons of Barsoom -- Fortune Cookie -- Smokey the Bear -- Condensation Theory -- Wild Card -- Armenian Breakfast -- Life with the !Kung -- Golden Age -- Boy Scouts -- Earth Prime -- Mediums and Messages -- A Storm on Mars -- Down the Zambesi -- Lightning in a Bottle -- Early Faint Sun Paradox -- Going North -- Quicksand -- Der Führer -- Big Bird -- Bora-Bora -- Mentor and Nemesis -- The Guatemalan Poet -- Rolling Stone -- "Too Down to Mars" -- Great Reckless Solo -- Death of an Exobiologist -- Polar Bears -- Bruce Murray -- Pet Shop -- Ann Druyan -- Proxy ET -- "Let's do it" -- Cockeyed Optimists -- Defection -- Suicide Chess -- Countdown -- Life in the Clouds.

Pasadena 1976

Embassy of Mars -- Ice Hockey -- Touchdown -- Oasis -- Rules of the Game -- Pink Skies -- Just Add Water -- Super Curve -- Important, Unique, and Exciting Things -- Scavenger Theory -- Normal Science -- Utopia -- Subrock Sample -- Hard-Shell Bugs -- Sudden Death.

Ithaca 1977-78

Double Squirt -- Bitter End -- Carbon Chauvinist -- One-Sigma Difference -- Rocket Scientist -- Time Capsule -- A Lack of Historical Determinism -- Moscow Nights -- Johnny B. Goode -- Anatomy Lesson -- World's Meanest Hyenas -- June 1st -- Open Mike -- String of Firecrackers -- Danny Boy -- Circle Line -- Launch -- Yellow Pad -- Mosquito Nets -- Existence Theorem -- Metronome -- The Pulitzer.

Los Angeles 1978-81

Two Mettlesome Horses -- Director's Revenge -- Pop Star -- Popularization and Academia -- Down to a Sunless Sea -- Clouds of Titan -- Loophole -- Soap on a Rope -- Malevolent or Hungry -- Golden Fleece -- The Perfect Zoo -- A Still More Fatal Weapon -- Muskrats, Drunkards, Extraterrestrials -- Wedding.

Ithaca 1981-95

Take No Prisoners -- Annie Effect -- Home Life -- Switzerland -- Bait and Switch -- A Paper a Month -- Good Works -- "Nucleus" -- Nuclear Winter -- Cornell West -- Dust Storms and Dinosaurs -- Appendicitis -- Star Wars -- Peer Review -- Halloween Before 1984 -- Doomsday Machine -- The World Turned Strangely Jewish -- Through the Looking Glass -- Asymmetry of Perception -- • = • -- C-Minus -- Saber Tooth -- Without a Trace -- Carl and Dorion -- Roman à Clef -- SETI in a Suitcase -- Throwing the Switch -- Mysterious Uranian Gunk -- Edward Teller -- Who's Afraid of Autumn? -- Burning Forests -- Nuremberg Trial -- Reagan in the Kremlin -- 900 Number -- Chapter and Verse -- Pale Blue Dot -- Monsoon -- Post-mortem -- Things That Go Bump in the Night -- Great Martian Chase -- Remodeling -- Genealogy -- National Academy -- Freak Accident -- Again with the Alien Abductions -- Karmic Boomerang -- Sagan v. Apple Computer -- The "I Touched Carl Sagan" Contest -- Birthday Party -- Conference Call.

Seattle 1995-6

Biohazard -- An Isolated Experiment -- Pirates -- Zeno's Paradox -- Postcard from the Titanic -- X-Rays -- Martian Meteorite -- Death.






Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos has 16 pages of photos, most never before published

Sample Chapter: "Flooded House"

JOHN LILLY ran dolphin research facilities in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Coral Gables, Florida. In the years after Green Bank, Sagan often visited on winter vacations. This allowed him to combine his love of snorkeling with his continuing interest in Lilly's attempts to communicate with these "alien" intelligences.

Marine mammals were a pop-culture phenomenon. There was a TV show, Flipper, about a dolphin as anthropomorphic as those in Lilly's tales -- though a good deal less overtly sexual. Lilly advised Flipper's producer, Ivan Tors, and two of Lilly's dolphins appeared in a movie version of Flipper. Lilly's books on dolphins became best-sellers. His example must have been on Sagan's mind as he forged his own writing career.

In winter 1963 Sagan met "Elvar." Elvar with the voluntary erections. Lilly took Sagan into a room with a large tank of sea water. Elvar poked his head above the water.

"Carl, this is Elvar," Lilly announced. "Elvar, this is Carl."

Elvar expertly smacked his head against the water surface. A neat spray of water nailed Sagan in the forehead.

Lilly left Carl and Elvar alone. The dolphin lolled in the water like a happy dog. Soon Sagan was scratching his belly. The dolphin would periodically dive, swim to the opposite end of the tank, and return for more scratching. Sagan tired of this before the dolphin did. Elvar reared up out of the water, balancing a moment on tail flukes and emitted a single word: "More!"

At least, it sounded like "more." It was a high-pitched monosyllabic squeak.

Sagan went and found Lilly attending some electronic equipment. He informed him, excitedly, that Elvar had said "more."

"Was it in context?" Lilly wanted to know.

"Yes, it was in context."

"Good," Lilly said. "That's one of the words he knows."

* * *

Lilly believed his dolphins could speak English -- not well, of course, and their vocabulary was limited. Sagan was not so sure. He was fascinated by all he saw in Lilly's finny kingdom. But it was never clear what was "real" and what was anthropomorphizing. Lilly sometimes seemed unmotivated to make these distinctions.

Lilly would talk about the great experiments he was going to do. Then another year would go by, Sagan would see him the next winter, and it would turn out that the actual, controlled experiment had still not been done. Lilly would spin another colorful tale. They had been trying out the concept when the dolphin did the damndest thing . . . One year, some of the captive dolphins committed suicide -- or such was Lilly's understanding. Lilly gallantly set the surviving dolphins free. These anecdotes were what made Lilly's books on the dolphin so engaging. But "the really critical scientific tests were somehow never performed," Sagan complained.

Sagan tried to nudge Lilly along. He outlined specific experiments and controls that would actually prove something. It had not even been established that dolphins can communicate arbitrary information to other dolphins. Until then, everything else Lilly did would rest on shaky ground.

Sagan suggested a Bach vs. Beatles experiment. They would teach a dolphin to distinguish between the music of Bach and the Beatles (dolphins have excellent hearing). The dolphin would be rewarded with tasty fish every time it tapped a fish dispenser that was playing Beatles music underwater (say) but never when it tapped an identical dispenser playing Bach.

Then they would introduce a new dolphin that knows nothing about music and how the fish dispensers work. A barrier would now prevent the "educated" dolphin from tapping the fish dispensers. Only the uneducated dolphin would be free to do that. Every time the uneducated dolphin hit the "right" dispenser, both dolphins would get food.

The educated dolphin would then have an incentive to "instruct" the new dolphin on the way to get food. If dolphins communicate, that would be demonstrable (in many tests, with many pairs of dolphins) by the greater slopes of the learning curves.

* * *

Lilly never performed this experiment. He suspected that if dolphins were to learn human speech, it would have to be through "total immersion," through being isolated from other dolphins and living with a human, hearing only human speech.

This naturally entailed "total immersion" for the human, too. Lilly envisioned a flooded house. It would be a home with the comforts of middle-class suburbia, only there would be water in it. Dolphins would glide freely among the human occupants' legs. In such a house dolphins might learn human language. It could even, Lilly speculated, be the foundation of a future utopia in which humans and dolphins would co-exist as equal partners.

A frustrated romance of Sagan's played a small role in Lilly's most famous dolphin study. One night in St. Thomas, Sagan dined at a remote mountaintop restaurant. The hostess caught his eye. She was an attractive young woman with dark hair and a healthy, tomboyish quality. Her name was Margaret Howe. She told Sagan that she was bored. Her job as a hostess was evenings only. She wanted something else to occupy her on the island.

Sagan tried to get Howe into bed. Howe rebuffed him, but the meeting had one result: Sagan introduced Howe to anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who was then running the St. Thomas facility. This led to a job and plunged Howe into one of the most unusual experiments of the 1960s.

In the summer of 1965, Howe lived in the company of "Peter," a male dolphin, 24 hours a day, six days a week in a simplified flooded house. There are surreal photographs of Howe working efficiently at a desk or chatting on the telephone, eyed curiously by a dolphin as her whole environment is sopping in 24 inches of water.

"A dolphin is more like a shadow than a roommate," Howe said. The thing would stay by her all day and never leave. She could talk on the phone for hours. The dolphin wouldn't get bored. It wouldn't leave. As weeks passed, Howe was subject to depression and crying jags. "I have found that during the day I will find any excuse to get out of the flooded room," she wrote in her diary. (Lilly meanwhile was contemplating a flooded car for the future bi-species society.)

Peter began exhibiting courting behavior. He lightly nibbled Howe's legs, getting erections, and rubbing against her ardently. As a matter of expediency, Howe took to giving the dolphin hand jobs. Peter would "reach some sort of orgasm, mouth open, eyes closed, body shaking, then his penis would relax and withdraw." Dolphin libidos being what they are, this had to be repeated two or three times; then, finally, the dolphin could concentrate on its lessons.

That made for a pretty good conversation stopper. Otherwise the experiment's results were debatable. It seemed that Peter learned to say "hello" and "ball" and parrot consonant sounds. When Howe asked Peter to get the ball, he would often get the cloth.

* * *

After this experiment, Sagan visited St. Thomas and played a game of catch with Peter. Sagan threw the ball to Peter, and Peter dove under it and batted it back with his snout. His aim was as accurate as a human's. Then, after a few volleys, the dolphin began returning the ball far to the side of Sagan. Peter was toying with Carl, performing an "experiment" of his own. Figuring that two can play that game, Sagan retrieved the ball one last time and held it, treading water.

For about a minute, both mammals stood their ground. Peter gave in. He swam into Sagan's side of the tank, circling him, repeatedly brushing past him. This puzzled Sagan. It didn't seem like the dolphin's tail flukes had brushed him. Then he realized the dolphin had a hard-on.

The frustrated triangle of Sagan, Howe, and Peter was worthy of Sartre. There was a further twist. Peter was one of Lilly's ex-actor dolphins. Sagan had been propositioned by Flipper.

* * *

By the mid 1960s, Lilly's interests had shifted to human consciousness. He was experimenting with the isolation tanks he had invented and with the then-new drug known as LSD-25. The Sandoz Company hoped to find a commercial use for the drug, and the Defense Department was said to be particularly interested. In a research proposal, Lilly requested the drug "to see its effects on dolphins."

Sagan and Lilly drifted apart. While he admired Lilly as a visionary, Sagan believed that Lilly was veering further and further from science. As to LSD, Sagan felt it was an entirely different matter from marijuana. It was a new and unknown chemical that had not been "tested" by centuries of cultural practice. Sagan reasoned that LSD is hazardous because its dosage is so minute and its effect is delayed. A user cannot tell he has consumed too much until it is too late.

(c) 1999 by William Poundstone