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With a new book, MIT scientist explores uncharted territory of exoplanets and grief

MIT astrophysicist Sara Seager wrote “The Smallest Lights in the Universe.”
MIT astrophysicist Sara Seager wrote “The Smallest Lights in the Universe.”Justin Knight

An astrophysicist and planetary scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sara Seager has a clear but lofty goal: To find and identify another Earth.

Though she has devoted her career to exoplanets, her new book, “The Smallest Lights in the Universe,” is a memoir. In addition to writing about her Canadian upbringing, love of exploring, and planetary research, she also tells the story of meeting her husband, Mike, and his ultimate sickness and death — which happened when she was just 40 and their boys were 6 and 8. She’s now remarried and lives in Concord. We reached her at home via phone.

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Q. So, what’s an exoplanet?

A. An exoplanet is a planet orbiting a star other than the sun. What I like to do is remind people that when you go outside at night and look up at the stars, each one of those stars is a sun. And if our sun has planets, it makes sense that other stars should have planets also.


Q. You’ve written a couple of books about exoplanets. Why the departure to write a memoir?

A. When my first husband, Mike, died, it was literally a transformative experience and I was motivated to share my story with the world. It was cathartic. I think that’s why people write, to just get it out there.


Q. When the world knows you as a scientist, was it difficult to tell a personal story?

A. Yes, it’s definitely awkward to share details of your personal life. I’ve heard other people say this too about memoirs: You’re good with strangers reading it, but you prefer that the people who know you don’t read it. Also, we tell birth stories, but no one asks about the death story. It’s so taboo.


Q. And you wanted to tell the story of Mike’s death?

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A. You can have a really beautiful death and I really felt strongly about sharing that. In our society, we’re moving toward being more open about death. But we still don’t ask our loved ones: What kind of death do you want? I was able to give Mike the perfect death.


Q. You talk honestly about the struggles in your first marriage. Was that intentional, to not show some sanitized version of marriage?

A. I would be surprised if anyone with kids doesn’t have major negatives. I don’t like to say that out loud because you want people to keep having kids, right? But I wanted a message to go out to people who are struggling, that maybe you need to make a second chance for your marriage. I’m not here to preach to people. That’s not my job. But I wanted to tell people: Yours isn’t dying, so please try. I didn’t get the second chance with my marriage.


Q. You explore the territory of grief in the memoir, but you also talk about finding happiness again and remarrying.

A. My mind-set has really shifted. Now if something’s a bit negative with him, I’m like: This is so great! I actually have a husband to get mad at? What could be better?




Q. You first saw the night sky away from the city when you were 10, and it shocked and amazed you. When you look at it now, almost 40 years later, what do you think?

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A. It’s the same feeling. It’s not a surprise anymore, but I have the same sense of awe and wonder. The only difference is, I wonder about the planets around those stars. I wonder if anyone’s on those looking back at us from their planet

Interview was condensed and edited. Judi Ketteler can be reached at judiketteler.com or via Twitter @judiketteler.