The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir

The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir

by Sara Seager


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In this luminous memoir, an MIT astrophysicist must reinvent herself in the wake of tragedy and discovers the power of connection on this planet, even as she searches our galaxy for another Earth.

“Sara Seager’s exploration of outer and inner space makes for a stunningly original memoir.”—Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone

Sara Seager has always been in love with the stars: so many lights in the sky, so much possibility. Now a pioneering planetary scientist, she searches for exoplanets—especially that distant, elusive world that sustains life. But with the unexpected death of Seager’s husband, the purpose of her own life becomes hard for her to see. Suddenly, at forty, she is a widow and the single mother of two young boys. For the first time, she feels alone in the universe.

As she struggles to navigate her life after loss, Seager takes solace in the alien beauty of exoplanets and the technical challenges of exploration. At the same time, she discovers earthbound connections that feel every bit as wondrous, when strangers and loved ones alike reach out to her across the space of her grief. Among them are the Widows of Concord, a group of women offering advice on everything from home maintenance to dating, and her beloved sons, Max and Alex. Most unexpected of all, there is another kind of one-in-a-billion match, not in the stars but here at home.

Probing and invigoratingly honest, The Smallest Lights in the Universe is its own kind of light in the dark.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525576259
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/18/2020
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 68,233
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Sara Seager is an astrophysicist and a professor of physics and planetary science at MIT. She led NASA’s Probe Study team for the Starshade project. Her research is focused on the search for the first Earth-like exoplanet, and she has introduced many new ideas to the field of exoplanet characterization, including work that led to the first detection of an exoplanet atmosphere. She lives with her family in Concord, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt


A Stargazer Is Born

I was ten years old when I first really saw the stars. I was mostly a city kid, so I didn’t often experience true darkness. The streets of Toronto were my universe. My parents had split up when I was very young, and my brother, sister, and I spent a lot of time on our own, riding subways, exploring alleys. Sometimes we had babysitters barely older than we were. One of them, a boy named Tom, asked my father to take all of us camping.

Camping wasn’t my father’s idea of a good time. Canadians escape to “cottage country” as often as they can, snaking out of the city in great lines of weekend traffic, aiming for some sacred slice of lake and trees. Dr. David Seager was British, and he often wore a tie on weekends; for him, sleeping in the woods was something that animals did.

But Tom must have made a pretty good case, because the next thing I knew, we were on our way north. We went to a provincial park called Bon Echo, carved out of a small pocket of Ontario, three or four hours from Toronto. Bon Echo includes a string of beautiful lakes, almost black against the green of the trees. There are white beaches and pink granite cliffs—perfect for jumping off into the cool water, after climbing as high as you dare—and thick red beds of pine needles on the forest floor. Bon Echo was the prettiest place I’d ever been.

Maybe it was the absence of city sounds that made it hard for me to sleep. I was in a tent with my siblings. We had set up a little suitcase between us like a nightstand. (As usual, we had been left to our own devices, this time to pack. We had no idea that campers generally don’t bring suitcases.) My brother and sister were making the soft noises that sleeping children make.

Jeremy was the oldest and tall for his age. He had only a year on me, but it was a crucial year, and he usually ended up in charge, dictating our daily activities from his great height. Julia was the youngest, beautiful and boisterous with a perpetual light in her eyes. She was everybody’s favorite. I occupied the middle in every sense, small and silent. I was the dark one. Jeremy and Julia have blond hair and blue eyes; I have brown hair and hazel eyes. My eyes were also the only ones open that night.

I unzipped the tent’s flap and ducked out into the dark. I wandered just far enough away to clear the last of the trees.

That’s when I looked up.

My heart stopped.

All these years later, I can still remember that feeling in my chest. It was a moonless night, and there were so many stars—hundreds, perhaps thousands—over my head. I wondered how such beauty could exist, and I wondered, too, why nobody had ever told me about it. I must have been the first person to see the night sky. I must have been the first person in human history who had braved her way outside and looked up. Otherwise the stars would have been something that people talked about, something that children were shown as soon as we could open our eyes. I stood and stared for what felt like hours but was probably seconds, a little girl who understood how to navigate the chaos of a big city and a broken home, but who now had been given her first glimpse of real mystery.

I was overwhelmed by what felt like too much light, too much knowledge to take in all at once. I ran back to the tent, curled up beside my sleeping sister, and tried to be just ten years old again, listening to the sweet sound of her breathing.

My father lived outside Toronto, in a series of neat and orderly apartments and bungalows. My mother lived in a former rooming house, in what was a battered part of town called the South Annex, with my stepfather, piles of old newspapers, and an army of cats named after literary characters. She was a writer, a poet.

I never became close with children who weren’t related to me, so I didn’t know how different our family was. When I’m feeling generous I tell myself that we were lucky to live without any of the usual constraints imposed by more conventional upbringings. I learned to believe that freedom is precious however it’s given to you, and our almost impossible freedom helped make us who we are today: Jeremy is a nurse; Julia is a harpist; I’m an astrophysicist. But when I reflect on the realities of our young lives, I can hardly believe we survived, especially when I look at my boys at the same age. We were cubs, turned out to run with the bears.

When we first lived in the Annex, we attended a Montessori school far outside town, near the distant house we’d called home before my mother and father separated. I don’t know why we stayed in the same school after our move into the city, but our commute was over an hour each way, including trips on two buses and the subway, with long waits at busy stations and platforms in between. Jeremy was maybe eight at the time, which would make me seven and Julia five. After a few weeks of trial runs, we made that trip every day on our own.

Jeremy would save up a pocketful of coins until he had enough to buy a bag of sour-­cream-­and-­onion chips, which we would carefully share. Just the smell of those chips today puts me back on those buses and subways. We filled time by reading newspapers—discarded by adults, or stolen out of the newspaper box after somebody bought one, before the door could slam shut—which I suppose was a positive. We were what modern educators would call “advanced.”

One day my sister fell into a muddy puddle at the bus stop that marked the start of our long journey home. After a tearful ride, a woman saw Julia still crying at the subway station and brought her into the women’s washroom to clean her up. She took forever, and I shuttled back and forth giving updates to my brother, who stood worried sentry outside. I try to imagine that scenario now—a woman finding three kids under eight on their own, one of them crying and covered in mud. I think today, most of the time, the story ends with a call to the police. In our case, it ended with a stranger putting my five-­year-­old sister slightly back together before we boarded the subway into the city.

I have memories that left more lasting damage. My stepfather was a monster, the kind of beast who normally lives at the dark heart of a fairy tale. He didn’t physically abuse me, but he could be unbelievably cruel, and his mood swings were vicious. I lived in constant fear of setting him off.

He and my mother were both still in bed when we left for school, having scratched together our own breakfast, our own lunch. He didn’t work, and my mother’s writing career wasn’t exactly lucrative, either. My father told me he suspected our entire family survived on his child support payments. When my mother and stepfather had a child together, my half sister, money was so tight that I wondered whether six of us were living off child support meant for three. Julia and I had to share our already cluttered room with the baby. She cried all night for months with colic, and she would wake up at dawn for a long time after, my mother ignoring my pleas to cover our east-­facing windows. I was forever getting up to take care of the baby.

When I was nine years old, I decided not to walk with Julia to school one morning. (We had left the Montessori at that point, but our new school was still a mile-­long walk away.) She would have been seven. I wanted to walk with one of my few semi-­friends and didn’t want my little sister tagging along, so I told her to find her own way. Instead of taking the safer, quieter side streets, she took the main roads. At one especially busy corner, she was confronted by an unstable woman who howled in her face and tried to hit her with her bags. Julia froze and screamed for help. It took a long time for anyone to answer her cries. A real estate agent finally surfaced from a nearby office to rescue her. For days after, teachers at our school would ask me what had happened. “Not sweet Julia!” They were in shock.

“You are in so much trouble,” my stepfather screamed at me when I got home. I can’t remember exactly what he said after that, but these are the words I hear when I close my eyes: You are a bad person. What were you thinking? You are so irresponsible. You are an ungrateful child, and I am furious with you.

I should have looked after my sister. But I was also nine years old. That night I was the one who woke up crying.

Reading Group Guide

1. The author opens the book by describing rogue planets; she uses them as a metaphor for her children, who she says have gone “halfway to rogue” following the death of their father. What else in her life appears “rogue”? Who or what in your life could be described as a “rogue planet,” with no star to orbit?

2. Throughout the book, the author talks about the power of belief and of positive thought. Do you feel that belief is a type of magic? Why or why not?

3. The author is an extremely successful woman in a field dominated by men. Was there a point in the book when you thought this circumstance was especially affecting her? Do you think the fact that she’s a woman has had an impact on her career trajectory, for better or for worse? Why?

4. Is there anything in your life that you’ve pursued with blind faith despite opposition, in the way that the author is driven to find exoplanets in the face of backlash from her scientific community? What kept the author moving toward her goal? What keeps you moving toward your goal?

5. Later in her life, the author discovers something about herself that she had never considered before—she realized it only after she was featured in a major publication and a friend pointed out certain aspects of her personality that came through on the page. How might you have reacted to a surprise like this? Have you ever realized something about yourself only after seeing yourself from another person’s perspective?

6. The author relied on a dark sense of humor to cope when her husband was first diagnosed and throughout his illness. What do you make of this? Why is this her instinct? Does this form of humor appeal to you, or not?

7. When her husband passed away at home, unhindered by tubes and machines, the author says she felt she was able to help “build something beautiful.” Do you agree that death can be beautiful? Why or why not?

8. What do you make of the use of metaphors throughout the book such as dark and light or the sun and stars? Was there a particular metaphor that was the most powerful to you?

9. The Widows of Concord become a supportive community for the author after her loss. Why do you think the author initially resisted their friendship? What did she ultimately gain from those relationships?

10. In her recurring dreams of her husband following his death, the author sees him return to her after long absences: he has been in a coma, missing, on long trips, and so on. What do you think is the meaning of this recurring dream?

11. Do you feel that the scene with the Green Flash is a moment of rebirth or closure for the author? Is it—or can it be—both?

12. The author has focused her life’s work on detecting life on other planets, only to find herself searching for new life after death. How are these pursuits related? How are they dissimilar?

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