Selling space

Carl Sagan: a life

Keay Davidson <em>John Wiley, 540pp, £19.50</em>

ISBN 0471252867

Carl S

Carl Sagan's is the all-American story of the child of immigrants who achieves fame and riches through good looks, hard work and talent. He became a salesman of scientific ideas. Such was his gift for communication that this author of a score of popular science books is scarcely remembered as a scientist in his own right. Sagan's work on the atmosphere of Mars and Venus gained him a role in Nasa's unmanned missions to those planets during the 1960s and 1970s. When he appeared on The Johnny Carson Show to explain what the probes had seen, America found a spokesman for science and Nasa one for its cause.

When Nasa tired of planetary exploration and turned to the space shuttle, Sagan began to write. His books range from The Dragons of Eden to Pale Blue Dot, his late musing about our place in the universe, and cover topics from evolution to intelligence. He made the renowned public television series, Cosmos. He essentially invented the scientific field of "exobiology", the study of life beyond the Earth. The necessarily speculative nature of the subject gave Sagan licence to roam through astronomy, chemistry and biology. It also gave scientists whose researches were more narrowly focused an excuse to attack him for his success.

One would say that Sagan's life provided enough material for two biographies if these books were not so similar. Any writer must envy the ability that Sagan developed to dictate "um-less" prose on to tape that led to so many best-sellers. He had a way of doing things that caught the public imagination. It was not he who suggested putting plaques on Nasa's planetary probes containing images of the human figure and evidence of human ingenuity. It was not he who first suggested that there might be a greenhouse effect on Venus and dust storms on Mars. He never made a true scientific discovery. He didn't actually gather data. It was not he who first designed the experiment or ran the computer model that showed that the smoke thrown up into the stratosphere from even a small-scale exchange of nuclear weapons might produce global cooling sufficient to destroy agriculture. And he didn't provide the catchy label of "nuclear winter" by which this scenario became widely known. But Sagan was pivotal in bringing all these topics to broader attention. In the case of the nuclear winter studies, this was at some risk to his relations with Nasa and at some cost, too: his book on the subject was his most substantial work - and the least read. Nevertheless, the name of Sagan was undoubtedly a factor in bringing world leaders round to a new position on nuclear arms. Comments from Ronald Reagan, in a 1985 interview in the New York Times, steal from Sagan's writing. Mikhail Gorbachev personally assured Sagan that he had read him and that his views were shaping his policy.

Keay Davidson calls Sagan "the Leonard Bernstein of science", "a Mr Science for the hip". He was. But William Poundstone is more perceptive when he says that Sagan was also "science's Tom Sawyer, capable of convincing others that whitewashing his fence was the most fascinating of all possible demands on their time". Both biographies examine infamous episodes when Sagan was passed over for tenure at Harvard and, later, membership of the National Academy of Sciences because of what more "serious" scientists saw as extra-curricular activities. Both are rather similar in style, too - slick and earnest.

People who have read Sagan's major books will find surprisingly little that is new here. Perhaps these biographies will reach a different audience. With an early death plucking at his sleeve, Sagan came to see that his consistent belief in extraterrestrial life (but not in UFOs, which he was keen to debunk along with a lot of other pseudo-science) was really about us here on Earth. Sagan's liberal-ism may have been simplistic and naively based on scientific rationality, but it reached millions who would otherwise not have heard. Now those who missed Sagan's message first time around have a chance to hear it. The plaques on the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft - the first human artefacts to press beyond the solar system - will never be read by an alien civilisation. They were meant for our own.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to keep us puffing

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis