CAREER: Sentinel Star, Orlando, FL, science writer, 1979-81; Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, CA, science writer on San Diego bureau staff, 1981-85; San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco, CA, science writer, 1986-2000; San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco, science writer, 2000—.
AWARDS, HONORS: Westinghouse Award, American Association for the Advancement of Science; Science in Society Award, National Association of Science Writers; Responsibility in Journalism Award, Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP); Dean's Medal, Oxford College of Emory University, 2001.
(With George Smoot) Wrinkles in Time (memoir), Morrow (New York, NY), 1993.
Twister: The Science of Tornadoes and the Making of an Adventure Movie, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Carl Sagan: A Life (biography), Wiley (New York, NY), 1999.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A biography of Thomas S. Kuhn.
SIDELIGHTS: Keay Davidson is an award-winning science journalist and the author of several nonfiction books. Among his books are Wrinkles in Time and Carl Sagan: A Life, both of which were widely reviewed. The former is the story of the discovery of the origins of galaxies by the scientist George Smoot, whom Davidson assisted in writing the book, and the latter is a close look into the life of the astronomer Carl Sagan.
Although it briefly looks over the early life of Smoot, Wrinkles in Time primarily traces Smoot's odyssey as he tried to discover evidence that the universe originated in a Big Bang and that we are living in an expanding and evolving, rather than a static, universe. A trip that began in the 1970s and continued into the early 1990s with evidence gathered from the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), this quest is described by Smoot and Davidson as both informative and exciting, according to reviewers. The authors, asserted Sciences critic Laurence A. Marschall, "make the pursuit of frontier science seem like a fast-moving action adventure." Wrinkles in Time, Los Angeles Times contributor Betty Ann Kevles further noted, "skillfully combines descriptions of Smoot's day-to-day life as a hands-on scientist with explanations of the ways astronomers like [Vera] Rubin have accounted for the movement of the stars, missing or dark matter, black holes and the Great Attractor."
After the 1996 death of Carl Sagan from the bone marrow disease myelodysplasia, two biographies of Sagan were soon published: Davidson's Carl Sagan: A Life and William Poundstone's Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos. While both books naturally have considerable overlap, the two biographers emphasize different aspects of Sagan's personality. As David A. Hollinger explained in a New York Times review, "For Davidson, Sagan is a scientist who is also a celebrity. For Pound-stone, Sagan is a celebrity who is also a scientist."
Sagan, an astronomer who taught at Harvard and Cornell University, became famous for his books and television appearances as a scientist who could explain the wonders of space and other scientific pursuits in compelling ways to a lay audience. His PBS miniseries Cosmos, which first aired in 1980, was one of the most-watched science programs ever broadcast; he was also the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Dragons of Eden and the author of the science fiction novel Contact, which was later made into a film starring Jodie Foster. Sagan's passion in life was to prove the existence of extraterrestrial life. Consequently, he was fascinated by the space program and, according to Robert Lee Hotz in the Los Angeles Times, "helped design experiments on the Mariner, Voyager and Galileo space missions. As a theoretician," Hotz continued, "Sagan found key pieces of several planetary puzzles." But while Sagan was strong on theory, he was often criticized by his colleagues for being weak on scientific experimentation. Both Davidson and Pound-stone point this out, as Hotz reported: "Despite his impressive intellectual breadth, . . . Sagan . . . appeared to lack the discipline for careful experiments or the sustained focus that is at the heart of scientific accomplishment."
As a result of this failing, Sagan was denied tenure at Harvard in 1967 and later was denied membership in the National Academy of Sciences. In addition, Davidson points out Sagan's personal failings as an inattentive father to his children and his two failed marriages. He sacrificed family in his pursuit of a career and celebrity, which he clearly enjoyed. In his professional life, "as Davidson makes clear, the rise that seemed effortless was in fact driven by a ferocious work ethic and a ruthless competitive streak," noted Chris Impey in the American Scientist. However, Sagan's accomplishments are not to be ignored, says Davidson. When Sagan came into the limelight, beginning with his many appearances during the 1970s with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, science was not of great interest to many Americans. Sagan helped to pique that interest by effectively communicating the excitement of science to a wide audience.
Davidson demonstrates great enthusiasm for his subject while admitting to Sagan's personal failings. The result, according to Hotz, is "an absorbing portrait of this Pied Piper of planetary science." Compared to the Poundstone biography, Davidson's book is "a more personal account," according to Houston Chronicle contributor Mark Carreau. "It draws from the author's greater access to family members, professional associates and antagonists." Impey similarly noted the more personal aspects of the Davidson biography, saying that it is "richer in anecdotes and quotes" than Poundstone's. Although this critic felt that the Pound-stone biography was better as a "direct narrative with lots of scientific details," Davidson's version has a more "entertaining . . . writing style and more psychological insights."
When asked what has particularly influenced his work Davidson provided CA with the following description: "Two radically different groups—1.) Those that regard science as salvation and 2.) Those that view it much less worshipfully and disdain its pomposities. The former influences enthralled my youth: Arthur C. Clarke, Martin Gardner, and Carl Sagan, for example. I continue to respect them in many ways, but I have advanced well beyond them and into darker, more cerebral, even 'post-modern' waters. The latter influences dominate my middle age, especially Thomas S. Kuhn, Lewis Mumford, Richard Rorty, Theodore Roszak, and Daniel Greenberg. I am also inspired by a wide range of historical writers, ranging from the neo-Marxian theorists of science and society to neo-conservative analysts such as John Patrick Diggins. Among my favorite essayists are Freeman Dyson, Edmund Wilson, and the pre-Palimpsest Gore Vidal."
Commenting on his writing process, Davidson noted that his preferred method is to "rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Scrawl innumerable notes on scraps of paper, then struggle to make sense of them. Sit quietly for an hour and re-think all my underlying assumptions." He further remarked, "Writing my little Twister book was the most fun I've ever had as a writer. Although burdened by its association with an execrable movie, this book is mainly about the history of science—specifically, of American severe-storm research—and contains some original historical research. I've been a tornado buff all my life; even today, in the age of high-tech meteorology, the 'killer funnels' retain a mythic aura descended from their nineteenth-century status as the darkest of the dark sides of the American Midwest, that agricultural 'Eden' which lured our ancestors toward the Pacific."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Scientist, January, 2000, Chris Impey, "Carl Sagan, Carl Sagan: Biographies Echo an Extraordinary Life," p. 74.
Astronomy, November, 1999, review of Carl Sagan: ALife, p. 102.
Booklist, December 1, 1994, Donna Seaman, review of Wrinkles in Time, p. 645; October 15, 1999, Gilbert Taylor, review of Carl Sagan, p. 401.
Chemistry and Industry, December 4, 2000, Mark Birkinshaw, "Fairy Tales of Science," p. 783.
Houston Chronicle, December 5, 1999, Mark Carreau, "Two Biographers Probe the Life of Carl Sagan," p. Z15.
Library Journal, September 1, 1999, Gregg Sapp, review of Carl Sagan, p. 229.
Los Angeles Times, January 18, 1994, Betty Ann Kevles, review of Wrinkles in Time, p. 8; January 16, 2000, Robert Lee Hotz, "Star Trek."
New Statesman, January 17, 2000, Hugh Aldersey-Williams, "Selling Space," p. 58.
New York Times, November 28, 1999, David A. Hollinger, "Star Power," section 7, p. 15.
Publishers Weekly, November 15, 1993, review of Wrinkles in Time, p. 58; August 30, 1999, review of Carl Sagan, p. 62.
Science News Washington, January 15, 1994, review of Wrinkles in Time, p. 34; January 28, 1995, Cait Anthony, review of Wrinkles in Time, p. 50.
Sciences, November-December, 1994, Laurence A. Marschall, review of Wrinkles in Time, p. 46.
Skeptic (Altadena, CA), fall, 1999, David Morrison, "Sagan and Skepticism," p. 29.