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The Smallest Lights in the Universe - Sara Seager

Last updated Aug 29, 2023


# Metadata

# Highlights

I’d spent my entire life searching for lights in the dark; now I could see only the blackness that surrounded them. (Location 87)

# CHAPTER 1 A Stargazer Is Born

I was mostly a city kid, so I didn’t often experience true darkness. The streets of Toronto were my universe. (Location 144)

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. (Location 174)

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. (Location 179)

I would spend a long time wondering—and agonizing—about my feelings of otherness, but my father gave me the gift of accepting me without explanation. (Location 238)

I came away from my research understanding that death was final, but my father had exposed me to other possibilities. That’s what fatherhood was to him: His job was to serve as a tour guide to the marvels of human existence. (Location 244)

There was something inspiring about his refusal to accept the present as a forever reality. (Location 302)

# CHAPTER 2 A Change of Course

the highest register on my human-companionship spectrum at the time was Tolerate, (Location 389)

Our talks meandered between sets of rapids like the river itself, and our paddling filled the silences. Mike was an editor who worked with words the way I studied light. We both spent a lot of time inside our own heads, trying to bend elusive things into shape. We found that we could be alone together. (Location 407)

# CHAPTER 3 Two Moons

Nothing changed about my existence except that I understood a little better how we come to know things. We make progress the way Mike and I covered our hard northern ground: in the long and steady accumulation of increments. (Location 525)

I watched my fellow students the way biologists might observe a family of apes. They formed bonds with each other, but I couldn’t figure out how or when. (Location 535)

There were those who accepted the discovery, including my adviser, Dimitar. He was only in his mid-thirties, new to the faculty at Harvard and young enough to remain given to belief. (Location 575)

In an accidental way, my months in the wilderness had inoculated me against such criticism, however well-intended. My power to focus had been developed like my shoulders. (Location 599)

I have always felt connected to animals. I think it’s because, unlike people, they are easy for me to read. Their needs are finite, physical as often as emotional, and I know how to meet them. Animals don’t get puzzled or angry when I say the wrong thing. They have short memories. They don’t cast judgments or see weakness in difference. They don’t take my energy and concentration; they give those precious things to me. Animals are blind to everything but love. Animals forgive. (Location 629)

His glasses softened his already kind face. (Location 667)

In a field as vast and daunting as ours, mentors are so important. The best ones show you not only where to look but also how to see. (Location 689)

Maybe, as a young scientist, you have an idea that can’t be proven despite its having a solid foundation in physics. It might make intuitive sense, but some theories, especially the most revolutionary, resist experimental evidence. (Location 695)

More and more, my life felt like the product of the decisions that I made. I could feel an unfamiliar certainty rising in me, that I was where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to do, with the people I was supposed to be doing it with. It had taken me a long time to find my way, but for the first time in my life, I wasn’t lost and lonely. I wasn’t an electron anymore. I was atomic. (Location 700)

# CHAPTER 4 In Transit

So if you were an alien who happened to look at Earth when North America was facing you, our light would be brighter than it might be a little later, when the Pacific Ocean slipped into dimmer view. Maybe we could use that curve in the light to infer the presence of oceans on distant planets, and thus water, and so perhaps a planet that might prove suitable for life. Oceans might be the biggest windows in the universe. (Location 732)

A lot of science, especially pioneering science, relies on intuition. You’d be surprised to learn how many of our most significant discoveries began as a hunch, as a feeling. I didn’t have any evidence that my idea would work. But I was doubtless. (Location 782)

We already knew that large amounts of certain gases are likely to exist only in the presence of life. We call them biosignature gases. Oxygen is one; methane is another. (Location 793)

Gabriela was incredible at math. It flowed through her more innately than music; it was something like spiritual. She had a preternatural ability to design simple yet expansive algorithms, and her access to telescopes meant that she could collect new data to feed them. (Location 840)

Gabriela and I became a team and, with time, a successful one. She flew to the telescope in Chile and diligently couriered tapes filled with astronomical data to me. I ran the data through my new lines of code, based on her stunning algorithms. (Location 849)

# CHAPTER 5 Arrivals and Departures

A little more than half of our sun’s light is infrared. You can’t see it, but you can feel it. Infrared is why places get warmer in the sun than in the shade. (Location 921)

I helped write a careful, punchy proposal—atmospheres and temperatures are intimately connected—and my team was awarded telescope time. (Location 935)

The universe might be infinite, but our appetites for exploring it are finite, and so are our resources. Time is the most precious resource of all. (Location 959)

He told me to take the job. It didn’t matter what else was going on, what else might or might not happen. “When the door of opportunity opens, you have to go through it,” he said, his voice rising. (Location 989)

My father might have believed that his journey toward death started the day he was born, but it began in earnest with a series of stomachaches. (Location 991)

Nobody had loved me like him. His love, a father’s love, was without conditions, without reservation, without peer. And only now, at the moment when I understood how big and rare that kind of love must be, did I realize how close I was to losing it. (Location 1020)

Cancer is so awful, an endless loop of invasions. It can feel like the same set of burglars keep coming back to steal what little they didn’t take the last time. (Location 1028)

# CHAPTER 6 The Law of Gravity

A scientist’s greatest fear is missing something obvious. Not making a mistake, because in science, the greatest advances sometimes come from trial and error. The danger is in not recognizing the opportunity you have in front of you. (Location 1076)

People at MIT build things, turning abstraction into practical magic. That’s what struck me most when I arrived: This was a place where I could make something, something miraculous that I could hold in my hands. (Location 1109)

“I never want to hear you say that something is the best you can do,” he said, surprising me with his passion. “I never want you to be limited by your own expectations.” (Location 1120)

There is a phase of your life when you’re building toward something, when your entire existence can feel like a construction project, a to-do list that you’ll spend years crossing off. (Location 1184)

Astrophysicists are forever toggling between feelings of bigness and smallness, of hubris and humility, depending on whether we’re looking out or within. (Location 1216)

Mike was his usual robust self, the picture of health, but like my father, he had been battling a series of small, strange stomachaches. Mike’s doctor told him to take Metamucil. Maybe he was constipated? I had serious doubts about both the prognosis and the prescription. (Location 1226)

# CHAPTER 7 Problems of Statistics

I can’t help wondering why we so often choose to suffer lifelong consequences in exchange for some short-term efficiency. Why would we ever trade temporary discomfort for a permanent one? (Location 1350)

I wondered whether, like my father had done for me, I could serve as my children’s principal illustrator. I wanted to show them that there was a right way to say goodbye. (Location 1405)

When did doctors start acting like faith healers? (Location 1434)

Here was the evil of deception, self-deception especially. “The truth hurts,” we’ll say in one breath, and we’ll call lies “harmless” in the next. That’s the definition of bullshit. Mike’s hope had become sinister to me. He needed to be thinking about how to spend the time he had left, not counting on time he would never have. (Location 1490)

Your mind plays a curious trick on you when tragedy strikes you or someone you love. You spend a lot of time remembering before. Your old life plays like a movie in your head. You remember when your worries were of a different scale, and you relive slideshows of happy scenes, every frame made gauzy and melancholic by everything that came after. Before catastrophe, you look ahead to give meaning to your present. After catastrophe, you look back. (Location 1499)

# CHAPTER 8 The Death of a Star

Mike started a third round of chemo. I told him that he shouldn’t, but he wanted to take any chance to survive. No part of him wanted to die. The chemo had no history of success, and the third round would be an attacking, experimental treatment that would kill Mike to give him a few more weeks of life. (Location 1556)

Jerry had told me about something called “terminal delirium.” The brain starts to follow the body’s lead toward failure. (Location 1643)

Like my father before him, Mike hung on. He was confined to his bed and rarely awake, but his heart still beat. I watched him for signs of pain and dropped liquid morphine inside his cheek several times a day. (Location 1667)

# CHAPTER 9 A Widow for One Month

Grief had a way of crystallizing things, of pushing out every stupid thought about everything that didn’t matter. (Location 1736)

# CHAPTER 10 Impossible Blackness

We knew that life-betraying gases are often destroyed by a cascade of atmospheric chemistry. That happens on Earth, too; the sun’s ultraviolet rays smash other molecules into highly reactive components, called radicals, which in turn bond with all sorts of chemicals. (Location 1909)

# CHAPTER 11 Life on Earth

If I was walking into Rocky’s, something had gone wrong at home, not procedurally, but with the house itself, which meant that I was either crying, had just been crying, or was about to cry. One of the men who worked there, whenever he saw me, said: “Ma’am, no need for the backstory. How can I help?” (Location 1999)

I liked toggling between different approaches to the same search. Both out of interest and strategy, I’ve always thought of research as a well-structured investment portfolio. (Location 2032)

We weren’t especially close, but he had been so supportive of ASTERIA, and he had a clear-eyed, levelheaded approach to everything. (Location 2047)

Humans are bad at dealing with damaged humans. (Location 2086)

I coached the boys on how to answer similar questions from kids at school or summer camp. We’d practice glib, vague responses, and build them into a sort of arsenal, a collection of the darkest inside jokes. “Well, he isn’t able to talk right now” or “Gee, he’s really busy at the moment” or “He’s away on a long trip.” The three of us would laugh until our laughter turned into something else. (Location 2092)

“Sara,” Bob said finally. “Do you know what I do when I need clarity? I run across the Grand Canyon. In a single day.” (Location 2120)

# CHAPTER 12 The Widows of Concord

Melissa’s had died bicycling. Riding down a big hill, he had struck a mouse skittering across the road, gone over the handlebars, hit his head, and died on the spot. (Location 2259)

Our instruments were allowing us to see smaller objects closer to their stars, and smaller is good. Smaller probably means thinner atmospheres, and cooler temperatures, and rocky surfaces. (Location 2365)

# CHAPTER 13 Stars Like Pearls

We wanted to stay out there with the stars until the sun began its rise, washing them out one by one until even the brightest had disappeared. (Location 2423)

# CHAPTER 14 Sparks

Sometimes the dreams were so vivid that after I woke up, I had to scan through my memories like files in a cabinet, remembering that I did watch him die. (Location 2575)

But when you lose someone, you don’t lose them all at once, and their dying doesn’t stop with their death. You lose them a thousand times in a thousand ways. You say a thousand goodbyes. You hold a thousand funerals. (Location 2586)

You’re right about that, I thought. The first guy had died. (Location 2605)

I made a quick decision not to fight the familiar hot rush of oncoming tears. Tears might not hurt me here. The Widows called it “playing the Widow Card.” It was an accepted strategy. (Location 2690)

She also gave me a large stone that had been smoothed by a river to the point where its rounded edges were almost soft. She told me to put it in my purse, which I did. Whenever I’d rummage around in it, I’d feel that stone between my fingers and be reminded that time can wear the edges off everything. (Location 2700)

# CHAPTER 15 Rocks in the Water

My problem—again, like all problems, like every problem—was a problem of statistics. (Location 2851)

When I arrived for that Friday’s coffee with the Widows, there were cupcakes with candles in them and Congrats! written in icing. I had to be told that we were celebrating me. (Location 2869)

# CHAPTER 16 Starshade

Leaving home six more times, for multiple nights each time, would guarantee the collapse of the delicate balance that I was forever trying to find. I would always have to be bad at something. (Location 2912)

Thanks to Kepler, we had determined that one in six stars like the sun hosts a planet the size of Earth. We had decided that seventeen billion Earth-size planets orbited their own suns in the Milky Way alone. (Location 2931)

Cash had succumbed to the scientist’s version of tunnel vision. He was stuck on a particular type of flower, something like a lily. Each of his designs had petals that radiated from the same small central focal point. In 2005, nearly two years after he had started work, he asked himself a new question: Why not a sunflower? (Location 3006)

The shapes of those petals changed in subtle ways, but those small changes mattered less than his choice of flower, which seemed to work. (Location 3010)

I knew I was smart enough. I had put in the work, and I had all the necessary late-night visions. (Location 3042)

I had a little less than three months to prepare to lead the Starshade team. I would do what I always did. I would read, and listen, and do the work. (Location 3082)

Two spacecraft flying in perfect formation tens of thousands of kilometers apart? A giant shield crafted to a precision measured in microns? Making stars disappear? Think about it, Sara. To them I had been asked to climb a mountain without a summit. (Location 3098)

It would be like voting for a political candidate just to prove how awful their proposals might be. (Location 3103)

# CHAPTER 17 Chance Encounters

I wrote Charles an email, saying that it had been nice to meet him. If I’m being honest, I didn’t think we’d cross paths again. He had his life, and I had mine. (Location 3182)

# CHAPTER 18 Clarity

# CHAPTER 19 Flashes of Genius

At our best, scientists are explorers. (Location 3422)

nitrogen-sulfur bonds are common in industry and pharmaceuticals; we force that union all the time in rubber manufacturing and for a variety of dyes and glues. But life? Life almost always avoids forging those bonds, and when it does, they’re often toxic. (Location 3455)

If my research into biosignature gases has taught me anything—and it has taught me many things—it’s that life will find its own way, and it isn’t always the same way twice. We need to think more radically, not less. (Location 3462)

Underneath our celebratory surface, we all knew the real reason they were there. Nobody had to say it. I looked around that room and felt the day’s first hint of a genuine smile on my face. Not because I wasn’t sad anymore, but because I would never again be alone in my sadness. (Location 3540)

Green Flash. When the conditions are exactly right at sunset—a dead-flat horizon, a pollution-free sky, a sun that appears white-hot rather than red—the last of the sunlight, refracted through the atmosphere and around the curve of the Earth, will appear, for the briefest of moments, unmistakably green. (Location 3583)

It’s hard to see the Green Flash for the first time on your own, which helps explain why I never had. It’s elusive in part because people want so badly to see it, but don’t know what they’re looking for. If you stare at the sun, even in its setting, your eyes will go blind to the sight. You need a partner, someone who is willing to sacrifice their own chance of seeing it on your behalf. (Location 3586)

Many widows and widowers learn to protect their heart from more damage. They know that they can’t take another blow, so they keep their love in an iron box, locked away inside their chests. (Location 3656)

Miracles don’t happen in a vacuum. They are willed into existence by willful people. (Location 3670)

I wanted him to feel that he had beaten cancer, not because he had survived it, but because it had never dictated how he might live. (Location 3686)

# CHAPTER 20 Final Report

But all of them became something more to me, as I became something more to them. Our relationships became less about need and more about want: (Location 3875)

I have tried to show people how we can explore our universe more completely than we might ever have imagined. We could prove that we’re not alone. Children almost always understand what I’m trying to say. It’s the adults who sometimes don’t. Adults have been given too many reasons not to believe; that’s why they so often say no. Children have greater faith in us. That’s why they always say yes. (Location 3910)

# CHAPTER 21 The Search Continues

an experienced autism specialist, had read between the story’s lines. She could spot an autistic person from far away. The way they walk, the way they move their hands. The way they’re often alone. Up close, the signs become unmistakable. Autism is in the eyes, unblinking. In the voice, monotone. In obsessions with machines and how things work. In an attention that can never be shaken. (Location 4014)

And sometimes, if we’re really lucky, maybe only once or twice in our lifetimes, we find something we didn’t even know we needed. (Location 4028)

I don’t think it’s an accident that there’s a mirror at the heart of every large telescope. If we want to find another Earth, that means we want to find another us. We think we’re worth knowing. We want to be a light in somebody else’s sky. And so long as we keep looking for each other, we will never be alone. (Location 4038)