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Understanding the Universe

The Woman Who Might Find Us Another Earth.

The Woman Who Might Find Us Another Earth.

BY CHRIS JONES

The star-crossed life of Sara Seager, an astrophysicist obsessed
with discovering distant worlds.

ike many astrophysicists, Sara Seager sometimes has a problem with her perception of scale. Knowing that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, and that each might contain hundreds of billions of stars, can make the lives of astrophysicists and even those closest to them seem insignificant. Their work can also, paradoxically, bolster their sense of themselves. Believing that you alone might answer the question “Are we alone?” requires considerable ego. Astrophysicists are forever toggling between feelings of bigness and smallness, of hubris and humility, depending on whether they’re looking out or within.

One perfect blue-sky fall day, Seager boarded a train in Concord, Mass., on her way to her office at M.I.T. and realized she didn’t have her phone. She couldn’t seem to decide whether this was or wasn’t a big deal. Not having her phone would make the day tricky in some ways, because her sons, 13-year-old Max and 11-year-old Alex, had a soccer game after school, and she would need to coordinate a ride to watch them. She also wanted to be able to find and sit with her best friend, Melissa, who sometimes takes the same train to work. “She’s my best friend, but I know she has other best friends,” Seager said, wanting to make the nature of their relationship clear. She is an admirer of clarity. She also likes absolutes, wide-open spaces and time to think, but not too much time to think. She took out her laptop to see if she could email Melissa. The train’s Wi-Fi was down. She would have to occupy herself on the commute alone.

Seager’s office is on the 17th floor of M.I.T.’s Green Building, the tallest building in Cambridge, its roof dotted with meteorological and radar equipment. She is a tenured professor of physics and of planetary science, certified a “genius” by the MacArthur Foundation in 2013. Her area of expertise is the relatively new field of exoplanets: planets that orbit stars other than our sun. More particular, she wants to find an Earthlike exoplanet — a rocky planet of reasonable mass that orbits its star within a temperate “Goldilocks zone” that is not too hot or too cold, which would allow water to remain liquid — and determine that there is life on it. That is as simple as her math gets. 

Her office is spare. There is a set of bookshelves — “Optics” and “Asteroids III” and “How to Build a Habitable Planet” — topped with a row of certificates and honors leaning against a chalkboard covered with equations. In addition to the MacArthur award, which doesn’t come with a certificate but with $625,000, she is proudest of her election to the National Academy of Sciences. Although the line between lunacy and scientific fact is constantly shifting, the search for aliens still occupies the shadows of cranks, and Seager hears from them almost daily, or at least her assistant does. By the standards of her universe, Seager is famous. She is careful about the company she keeps and the words she chooses. She isn’t searching for aliens. She’s searching for exoplanets that show signs of life. She’s searching for a familiar blue dot in the sky.

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