This Scientist Combs Our Universe To Find Life Among The Stars

05.25.17 11 months ago


Uproxx knows that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines are driving the future of this planet forward. Every day, we see new ideas, fresh innovations, and bold trailblazers in these fields. Follow us this month as we highlight how STEM is shaping the culture of NOW.

‘One morning in January — it was a clear, cold morning; I shall never forget that morning — as I was taking my usual walk along the (mill) race . . . my eye was caught with the glimpse of something shining in the bottom of the ditch. . . . I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold.”

-James Wilson Marshall, whose discovery of gold in 1848 was the catalyst for the California gold rush.

When astrophysicist Sara Seager first began looking for another life-sustaining “earth” in the early 2000s, hardly anyone was studying in the field of exoplanets (planets beyond our solar system). In fact, scientists had only recently confirmed that they existed at all.

“The field was so wide open,” she says. “Honestly, it was the gold rush.”

Like the gold rush of the mid 19th century, the field was about to become incredibly competitive. Being the very first to find an exoplanet that is like our own, one that could potentially support life, has turned the space race into an outright sprint. Because for scientists like Sara Seager, finding that particular exoplanet would be just like being the first person to strike gold in California in 1848. It wouldn’t just change her life, it would change everything.

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Seager vividly remembers the moment the lightbulb went on that illuminated her path to becoming a world renowned scientist.

“I was in high school and we were studying physics,” she says. “We had this assignment where the teacher was holding a big wooden board with a big hole in it. And we had a spring.” The goal, she explains, was to shoot the spring so that it would make an arc through the hole from across the room. “We actually had to work out an equation that we’d been learning about. Then you had to set your angle based on your distance. No intuition, just with these equations. Mine made it through the hole.”

As Seager recounts this memory, you can still hear the pride in her voice.

“It was just a thrill,” she continues. “Because it hadn’t occurred to me that you could write an equation down that could predict how something will behave.”

That was the moment she fell in love with physics. Partially, because it brought order to the mysteries around her. With one equation she discovered that she could predict and understand the world better. And she loved that.

Before long, Seager wasn’t satisfied just bringing order to our world. She wanted to use physics to bring order to the whole universe. She would look up at the stars and wonder what they were, what was really out there.

“I was always intrigued by all of that,” she says. “I just got really lucky because I somehow learned you can put those together, the equations, to understand the stars.”

From there, Seager was sucked into the field of exoplanets, an obsession that would determine the course of her entire adulthood. She’s devoted her career to looking for a life-supporting exoplanet like ours, and she’s not going to stop until she finds one.

Justin Knight

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