Light and Darkness in The New York Times’ Profiles on Astrophysicist Sara Seager

The New York Times has a long, in-depth profile of Sara Seager. Seager, an astrophysicist and MIT professor, and has become one of the leaders in exo-planet research, and proponent of the “starshade” project, which currently seems like our best bet at finding Earth-like exoplanets, and maybe even extraterrestrial life.

The profile digs into the difficulties of searching for exoplanets, and particularly the struggle to prove to colleagues that this search isn’t mere “stamp collecting”, which is “a derogatory term within the community for hunting new, unreachable lights just to name them.” However, the story really gains momentum when detailing the “starshade” project.

Imagine that far-off aliens with our present technology were trying to find us. At best, they would see Jupiter. We would be lost in the sun’s glare. The same is true for our trying to see them. The starshade is a way to block the light from our theoretical twin’s sun, an idea floated in 1962 by Lyman Spitzer, who also laid the groundwork for space telescopes like Hubble. The starshade is a huge shield, about a hundred feet across. For practical reasons that have to do with the bending of light, but also lend it a certain cosmic beauty, the starshade is shaped exactly like a sunflower. By Seager’s hopeful reckoning, one day the starshade will be rocketed into space and unfurled, working in tandem with a new space telescope like the Wfirst, scheduled to launch in the mid-2020s. When the telescope is aimed at a particular planetary system, lasers will help align the starshade, floating more than 18,000 miles away, between the telescope and the distant star, closing the curtains on it. With the big light extinguished, the little lights, including a potential Earthlike planet and everything it might represent, will become clear. We will see them.

The article goes on to outline the starshade’s development since 1962, but what really stuck with me was the image of Seager packing a third-scale model of the shade into a wheeled case and hauling it from offices to conference rooms to Congress, all while trying to convince people that this is our best shot at finding life. Even in our country’s most science-friendly moments, most of the U.S. public has looked askance at efforts to find new planets and new life (one need only look at the NYT’s comment section to see people saying that we should focus on problems here on Earth, rather than looking beyond our solar system), so I can only imagine that this is a difficult job in the best of times. Scientists and mathematicians, even more than artists, tend to be painted with a brush of extreme social awkwardness, shyness, and arrogance. On one end of the pop culture spectrum we have The Big Bang Theory, where nerd stereotypes are slotted into the sitcom format. At the other end we get The Imitation Game…where nerd stereotypes are slotted into prestige, big-budget Hollywood drama. In actuality science looks more like this image of a hard-working woman packing a starshade up, and trying to figure out how to explain it to someone who des not have a higher math degree, but who does have access to millions of dollars.

The piece highlights Seager’s difficulties with fitting in as a child, and then skips up to her work at Harvard, where I think it might have been interesting to look at how gender, and later motherhood, played a role in her career, and how gender expectations interacted with her own personality. How did society’s very specific expectations for a girl figure into her behavior as a child, her life at college, her decision to study astrophysics? We never hear from her why this was the thing she chose. Becoming a tenured professor at MIT is not an easy thing to do, and doing it while raising two children is even harder, so where is her struggle? The piece also shows a tension between attempts to “humanize” Seager by showing that she can’t swipe a credit card correctly, or figure out her coffeemaker, while also writing about her through that same “genius” filter that plagues all depiction of science. It makes for an interesting read, and you can check out the entire profile over at The New York Times. It gives a great glimpse at a pocket of scientific research that has already revolutionized the way we see our universe and ourselves, but which could finally lead to us finding extraterrestrial life.

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