by Richard Sherman
The Smallest Lights in the Universe by Sara Seager
Paperback $14.99 on Amazon
A brilliant young scientist begins her career that will take her to the elite echelons of exoplanet research. She finds love. Has two kids. Buys a house. And then her husband dies.
Dr. Seager shares her personal and professional story with us in The Smallest Lights in the Universe. She shows great courage in her honesty: she confesses her real emotions over those painful, turbulent years as her strong, outdoorsman husband develop cancer and dies, leaving Sara to find a way forward. This is not a happy book. There are no beautiful images. But it is a real book, an honest book. Although we learn about various exoplanet programs and her efforts to find Earth-like planets orbiting other stars, the book is carried by the honesty, the determination and the courage of one woman dealt a tragic life-turning blow. And she just happens to be a brilliant scientist.
Of note to AAAP members, Dr. Seager spent 1999-2002 at Princeton University. Chapter 4 begins: “Einstein’s oasis at the Institute for Advanced Studies felt more like a launchpad to me, the seeds of ignition in every blade of grass. I sat under those enormous trees throughout the fall of 1999 and pondered the next step in my journey to the farthest reaches of the galaxy.” And later, “The word ‘no’ was banned from our gatherings. David Spergel was our team’s local committee lead, and we met every week at Princeton’s Peyton Hall. A practically visible current leapt like voltage from one dreamer to the next, each new idea lighting up the room a little more brightly. For a brief spell we had the budgets and youth to imagine a seriously fantastical future.”
So why an A- and not an A? I am probably being unfair (after all, the subtitle is “A Memoir”), but I guess the book took a toll on me emotionally. I would have gladly traded some pages of her grief to hide in cold-hard science. Maybe I’d rather be confused by complex science than saddened by the family’s suffering. I even put the book down for a week to get some distance as her husband reached his final days.
As the book nears its end, Dr. Seager’s personal life and career finally find new footing. She writes, “Sometimes you need darkness to see. Sometimes you need light.” I thought this was a profound observation for all of us amateur astronomers.
As I finished the book, I began to wonder: is it less important to find intelligent life on other planets as it is to find compassionate life on our own?
P.S. There is a free PDF book entitled Is There Life Out There? on the author’s website that I am currently reading. You can access it at: https://www.saraseager.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/book-is-there-life-out-there.pdf. Lastly, I learned about cool retro downloadable images/posters for different objects in the solar system from The Smallest Lights in the Universe. Check them out at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/galleries/visions-of-the-future