Lost in Space; Colleagues Hated Him, Wives Left Him, and His Children Didn't Know Him. Did Science's First TV Superstar Care? No, All That Astronomer Carl Sagan Had Time for Was a Love Affair with the Planets
Byline: MELANIE MCDONAGH
Carl Sagan was the People's Scientist. He was the man from Brooklyn who, in the Eighties, took the complexities of modern astrophysics, evolutionary theory and nuclear biology and turned them into a TV series.
Cosmos, with an estimated global audience of 400 million, was a remarkable attempt at bringing science to the masses, and the reason why it was a success was Carl Sagan. The most abiding images in the whole 13-episode series were repeated close-ups of Sagan, grinning. He was the real centre of this cosmos.
Of course, Sagan was not merely a TV presenter, but a distinguished scientist in his own right. A new biography, Carl Sagan, by the science journalist Keay Davidson, reviews his achievements, including his pioneering research on the planets, notably Mars and Venus, and his study of the effects of aerosols and nuclear explosions on the terrestrial climate. He was also the man who identified the phenomenon of the nuclear winter and campaigned against nuclear weapons. Yet this remarkable pioneer was a mass of personal contradictions.
Sagan was a civil rights activist, and a science fiction enthusiast who was utterly captivated by the notion of life in other galaxies. But he was also a bad father, an unsatisfactory husband to two of his three wives, a leftist who would sulk if he wasn't given the presidential suite in any hotel he visited, and an egotist remarkable even among American scientists.
He was a dogmatic atheist but, in his work against nuclear proliferation, he visited the Pope to discuss the concept of the nuclear winter, and rather liked him. He was an enemy of conservatives, yet he and his wife accepted an invitation to dine with the Queen on the royal yacht Britannia, and felt rather disgusted with himself for doing so. No populariser of science has been quite like him since his death in 1996 at the age of 62.
Much of his contradictions derive from his early life. If he was a monster of self-absorption, the fault was his mother's. Rachel Sagan was the very archetype of the Jewish mother in her possessive adoration of her only son, but she was also neurotic, domineering and a rather brilliant woman who found all her own thwarted intellectual and social ambitions realised in Carl.
Rachel was a rejected child. After her mother's death she moved in with relatives; they found her intolerable and sent her to live with her father and her stepmother, who loathed her, in New York. There she met Sam Sagan at a party and was captivated by his red hair and freckles. They married within weeks.
Sam was a gentle fellow who had left the Ukraine at the age of five. He tried to better himself through education, but the death of his father put paid to his hopes of entering Columbia University; instead he went into his Uncle George's garment business. He was an excellent employer; his son's political liberalism may have owed much to his father's quiet example.
In the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that Carl Sagan, born in 1934, should have been a bright and cosseted child. His mother adored him and told him he was brilliant. He took her at her word, and her notion of her boy informed his own positive view of himself. If Carl Sagan was never a martyr to self-doubt, it was largely Rachel's doing. She was correspondingly uninterested in her daughter, Cari, who observed that 'she never hugged me'.
Carl became a distant brother but an affectionate and dutiful son.
At the age of eight, Sagan decided that extra-terrestrial aliens existed; he was a great fan of Superman and was captivated by the novels of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, who also wrote a number of romances set on Venus, the Moon and Mars. For much of his life, Carl adored science fiction; indeed he was to write a science fiction novel himself. At his barmitzvah, the rabbi recalls that 'at 12, he knew more about stars and constellations and dinosaurs than I did. …