Canadian MIT astrophysicist Sara Seager interweaves the story of her search for meaning and solace after losing her first husband to cancer, her unflagging search for an Earth-like exoplanet and her unexpected discovery of new love.
Sara Seager has made it her life's work to peer into the spaces around stars--looking for exoplanets outside our solar system, hoping to find the one-in-a-billion world enough like ours to sustain life. But with the unexpected death of her husband, her life became an empty, lightless space. Suddenly, she was the single mother of two young boys, a widow at forty, clinging to three crumpled pages of instructions her husband had written for things like grocery shopping--things he had done while she did pioneering work as a planetary scientist at MIT. She became painfully conscious of her Asperger's, which before losing her husband had felt more like background noise. She felt, for the first time, alone in the universe.
In this probing, invigoratingly honest memoir, Seager tells the story of how, as she stumblingly navigated the world of grief, she also kept looking for other worlds. She continues to develop groundbreaking projects, such as the Starshade, a sunflower-shaped instrument that, when launched into space, unfurls itself so as to block planet-obscuring starlight, and she takes solace in the alien beauty of exoplanets. At the same time, she discovers what feels every bit as wondrous: other people, reaching out across the space of her grief. Among them are the Widows of Concord, a group of women offering consolation and advice, and her beloved sons, Max and Alex. Most unexpected of all, there is another kind of one-in-a-billion match with an amateur astronomer. Equally attuned to the wonders of deep space and human connection, The Smallest Lights in the Universe is its own light in the dark.
Planetary astrophysicist Seager looks back on her life through the lens of her passion for stargazing in this brilliant, emotionally wrought memoir. A socially awkward child, Seager shuttled between divorced parents in 1970s and '80s Toronto. At age 10 on a camping trip, she discovered the stars "I stood and stared... a little girl who understood how to navigate... a big city and a broken home, but who now had been given her first glimpse of real mystery." A canoe trip in 1994 cemented her relationship with fellow outdoor enthusiast Mike, and during her graduate work at Harvard she researched exoplanets. She joined the faculty of MIT in 2006, and married Mike, with whom she had two sons. She received prestigious science awards and was named chair of a key NASA project; but in 2011 Mike was diagnosed with and soon after died from colon cancer. Seager's fragile balance of career and single motherhood was strengthened by two chance meetings with a young widow and a fellow stargazer named Charles Darrow. Her life was again reignited with friendship and love, and bolstered when she received the MacArthur Fellowship in 2013. Seager's openhearted prose is clean and exact, and her observations "We want to be a light in somebody else's sky" illuminate the human drive to connect with others. This wondrous tale of discovery, loss, and love is both expansive intimate.