Review: The Smallest Lights in the Universe

The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir
by Sara Seager
Crown, 2020
hardcover, 320 pp.
ISBN 978-0-525-57625-9

Science is done by scientists. That may seem like an obvious statement, but it’s something often forgotten in the announcements of discoveries, including in astronomy and related space sciences. Discoveries are often attributed—particularly in news headlines—to the spacecraft or observatories used to make them. But those discoveries are made not by spacecraft and instruments, but by people who operate them and analyze the data they produce. Those researchers, like the rest of us, are people with their own motivations to do such work, and struggles to overcome to achieve those discoveries.

That message comes across in The Smallest Lights in the Universe by Sara Seager, a professor at MIT who studies exoplanets. Seager is one of the leading scientists studying exoplanets, participating in NASA missions and winning a MacArthur “genius grant” fellowship. (She is one of the scientists profiled in Five Billion Years of Solitude, the excellent 2013 book by Lee Billings about the search for life beyond Earth.) Her memoir combines the highs and lows of her professional career with the far larger triumphs and tragedies of her personal life.

Growing up in Toronto, Seager didn’t have an interest in astronomy until she saw the night sky in all its splendor during a camping trip at the age of 10. She later described her interest in astronomy as an “almost physical pull” that led to her to study the field at the University of Toronto and then Harvard where, as a graduate student, she started working in exoplanets just as the field was emerging in the latter half of the 1990s. That was something of a risk, since many in astronomy were skeptical of exoplanet research, dismissing it as “stamp collecting” without the rigor of other aspects of astrophysics. “The fear at every school, palpable in the room, was that researching exoplanets was an intellectual dead end,” she writes after recalling an interview for a faculty position at one university.

She kept at it, though, showing it was possible to not only discover exoplanets but study their atmospheres, a step towards finding potentially habitable worlds. She landed a faculty position at MIT and worked on NASA missions. During this time, she married the man she met in college (and bonded with during a summer canoeing in the Canadian wilderness) and had two boys. A happy ending, if the story ended there.

But the story only begins there. She describes how her life was upended when, first, her father dies of cancer back in Toronto. Soon, her husband is also diagnosed with cancer and, after several rounds of chemotherapy, dies. At the age of 40, she’s faced with the prospect of raising her children alone, dealing with the day-to-day issues at home her husband once handled (she was, she explains, extremely focused on her work; late in the book she offers an explanation for that focus, which won’t be spoiled in this review.) A lifeline for her is a group of widows who all live in the same town as her outside Boston, who offer both practical and emotional support.

Gradually, Seager rebuilds her life, and eventually finds new love, while continuing her research. However, it is a struggle, one that leads her to even consider quitting her job at MIT. But perseverance, and support from friends and colleagues, pays off: by the end of the book she has found new stability in her personal life, and new frontiers in her professional one, leading work on a concept called a starshade that could be used in conjunction with a space telescope to directly image other worlds.

The Smallest Lights in the Universe is not a book about the study of exoplanets and the search for life beyond Earth, although there is plenty of that in the book. Instead, it’s about our lives on Earth, as she describes at the end of the book. Looking for life beyond Earth shows that we’re curious and hopeful, “capable of wonder and wonderful things.” It is also a reminder that discoveries do not emerge from a vacuum, nor are they made by machines. They come from people with hopes and fears, struggle and sacrifices, triumphs and setbacks. Just like all of us.