‘The sky is for everyone — exploring the unknown is thrilling to me’ | Press24-India News
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Sara Seager is an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Described by Nasa as ‘an astronomical Indiana Jones’, Seager is leading the search for another Earth-like planet. Seager spoke with Srijana Mitra Das at Times Evoke about what drives her exploration, why other planets are vital — and how she has navigated a field dominated by men:
What got you interested in astronomy?
The sky is for everyone. Even in a city, the Moon and planets such as Venus and Jupiter are visible, shining brightly. I always loved the night sky. When I was a child, I saw the full moon following me as my dad drove me in his car. No matter where he turned, the moon was always there! A big mystery for a small child. I saw the moon through a telescope for the first time at an ‘astronomy party’. Wow, I thought — I had no idea the moon was its own whole world.
When I turned 16, I took a physics class — a defining moment occurred. The teacher held a plywood board with a giant hole cut out. The students had to shoot a spring across the room. We had to measure the ‘spring constant’ and use equations to predict what angle to shoot the spring, based on the distance from the plywood board.
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I was shocked that my spring went through! The concept that we can write equations to describe the world around us was transformative.
What got me interested in astronomy was the idea that we can study objects in the night sky using physics equations. This is an amazing idea — that we can use equations and models to understand mysterious, very distant objects. I realised I had found something I loved — astronomy, which is applied math and physics — and it would be foolish to pass up the opportunity to follow my dream. The problem was my dad, whom I adored, told me to get a practical job, to be able to financially support myself and ‘not rely on any man’. I struggled with the choice, but I ultimately decided to pursue astronomy.
Nasa today calls you an ‘astronomical Indiana Jones’. What is it about new planets that fascinates you?
The idea of exploring, of ‘seeing’ something for the first time, is absolutely thrilling to me. The concept of being able to ask your own questions, about something completely unknown, and find your own answers, using observations and computer models, fascinates me. Most of our Earth has been explored. However, exoplanets are completely unknown.
Life beyond Earth fascinates me because humans have always wondered ‘Are we alone?’. The fact that we can answer this question with stateof-the-art astronomy tools is amazing! We are not quite at the ‘finding signs of life’ stage, but the astronomy community is finding rocky planets with orbits that imply the planets are ‘habitable’ — not too hot, not too cold, just right for life.
Describe your work searching for a ‘new Earth’?
I have different projects searching for a new Earth but my favourite endeavour in this is the Starshade project. This is a giant specially-shaped screen, tens of meters in diameter. Starshade will be attached to its own spacecraft and it’ll fly in formation with a space telescope, nearly perfectly aligned at tens of thousands of kilometres of separation. Starshade will block out starlight, so only planet light enters telescopes. Starshade was conceived of in the 1960s. In 2013, I was asked to lead the team. There is also the MIT-led Nasa mission TESS. Launched in 2018, this searches for transiting planets — those seen in front of a star. TESS also studies smaller, cooler red dwarf stars for rocky planets. I help run TESS and at MIT, our job is to find planet candidates.
As a woman scientist, how have you managed in a field dominated by men?
Surprisingly, I had little resistance during my studies. I think I (accidentally) chose mentors who had daughters. They wanted their own daughters to succeed, and perhaps such thoughts were transferred onto me.
There have been snide remarks from peers and professors, but I was able to ignore them. Recently, I have encountered gender-based bias. Now I’m older and not perceived as a daughter-type but perhaps as a threat. I have also been at high-profile events where women in general are just treated with disrespect or ignored. I have not yet figured out what to do about this.
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