Zibby Owens: Sara Seager is a Canadian American astronomer and planetary scientist. She’s a professor at MIT known for her work on extrasolar planets and their atmosphere. She’s the author of two textbooks on these topics and has been recognized for her research by Popular Science, Discover magazine, Nature, and Time magazine. She was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013 citing her theoretical work on detecting chemical signatures on exoplanet atmospheres and developing low-cost space observatories to observe planetary transits. I really don’t know what any of that means, but obviously she’s super impressive. A graduate of the University of Toronto with a PhD from Harvard, she is also the author of memoir The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir, called a luminous memoir about how she had to reinvent herself in the wake of tragedy and discovered the power of connection on this planet as she searches our galaxy for another Earth.

Welcome. I’m so honored to be interviewing you today for “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks so much for coming on.

Sara Seager: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. The Smallest Lights in the Universe is perhaps one of my favorite books I’ve read recently. It is so good. The parallel lines of the space race with your own grief, it’s just amazing. I just wanted to let you know how powerful I thought it was.

Sara: Thank you. I really appreciate that.

Zibby: For listeners who don’t know what The Smallest Lights in the Universe is about, would you mind telling them what it’s about? Then what inspired you to write this memoir?

Sara: The Smallest Lights in the Universe is about the journey of exploring outer space, but also the journey of exploring inner space. By outer space, I mean the stars. I hope you have a chance to look up at the dark night sky filled with stars because each one of those stars is a sun. We have evidence that each of them have planets. We’re looking for another planet like Earth, one that might have life on it. By the way, I just wanted to capture in the book that science is truly a journey of exploration. Just like the people who first went to the North Pole or to Antarctica in the South Pole, we are trying to push the frontiers of exploration. All of us in our everyday life often eventually get to some kind of crisis. In my case, this was a death in my nuclear family of my first husband. It was like hiking in the outdoors and imagining falling off a cliff where at the bottom you’re just broken and isolated. It feels like an incredible journey to have to make it back out of that lonely canyon. In my book, I interweave both of those stories. My goal is to just show people what science is like and how we can try to inspire ourselves to do big things.

Zibby: You’re one of the most preeminent astrophysicists and have just really blown the records off of so many things, discovered new things, achieved things throughout the course of your career. Why a memoir too? Having read your story so I know how busy your life is, when did you find time to do this?

Sara: The whole thing started, actually, when my first husband died, which I can talk about now without being really upset about it because it was almost a decade ago. When I was going through this incredible journey of inner exploration, I just was like, wow, I haven’t read about this or seen about it. I was so lucky to meet another group of moms, widows. I asked them, “Aren’t you writing a book about this?” It seemed like something the world should know about. That was partly my motivation. It’s funny because they say busy people can get more done. In my field, people are allowed to take a sabbatical. Every six years or so, you take some time off your everyday busyness. Repeatedly, those folks get less done on their own personal private work. I did have to squeeze things in on evenings and weekends. It was definitely tough.

Zibby: Wow, I’m very, very impressed. Your writing on grief, would you mind if I just read you this excerpt? Maybe you could comment on it. It has stayed with me so much. You write, “Everybody dies instantly. It’s the dying that happens either quickly or over a long period of time.” Then you go on and you say, “I understand intellectually the need for the distinction between dying and the instancy. A car accident and cancer are two different strains of death. It’s the difference between dying as a whole all at once and dying piece by lost piece.” Then you say — I’m jumping around two pages because it’s all so good. “Either way, the buildings end up gone, but the way it vanishes isn’t the same, and we need a word to make clear the difference in process. It still felt to me as though Mike died instantly. Yes, we knew his death was coming. We could get his affairs in order, whatever hallow comfort that is supposed to bring, as though the most important thing when you die is that you die with a tidy desk.” Then you say, “The dying time that Mike and I shared didn’t make his death any less of a horror, and it didn’t make my loss feel any less sudden. Mike took a breath, and then he died. He was alive, and then he wasn’t. In one moment, I was a wife. In the next, I was a widow.” That is so powerful. That’s amazing. Tell me a little more about that difference and how it felt in that moment and this distinction that people tend to make as if the dying slowly will somehow blunt the trauma of having someone you love suddenly die.

Sara: I know. Now I do feel like crying.

Zibby: I’m sorry.

Sara: It’s okay. What happened was he was diagnosed with cancer. He became terminally ill pretty quickly because the chemo didn’t work. He definitely went on this downward slide where eventually he was bedridden. We both wanted him to die at home, so we had set up a hospital bed. We had home hospice. It was all very helpful. He was just hanging on like you wouldn’t believe it. His home hospice nurse, Jerry, had explained to me what would happen and what to look for. Jerry would come back day after day, week after week, and go, “Wow, we haven’t seen a forty-year-old man do this before. It’s only the twenty-year-olds who have a brain tumor whose body is so strong they’ll hang on.” I took care of Mike. I was just waiting for him to die because he was basically dead. He couldn’t communicate. I was just taking care of him, helping him on that final journey. I honestly expected that I had come to terms with his death already because of those extended days and few weeks when he should’ve already been dead. He was just hanging on somehow. Then after he died, except for a short period of relief, my life just fell apart.

Zibby: I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for your loss. It’s such a gift for you to be sharing it in this way.

Sara: One thing that I tried to convey in the book, I’m not wanting people to have a loss at this level, but sometimes a catastrophe can lead to new, beautiful things. Think about this. In the spirit of mixing science with personal, when the dinosaurs became extinct, we think a giant meteorite hit Earth and destroyed not only the dinosaurs’ life, but lots of other species by creating just pure chaos in our atmosphere and enabling volcanoes to spew out ash. Everything became darker and probably a lot colder. Because of the dinosaurs dying out, new life could flourish, including what led to us humans being able to rise on our planet. Although as sad as my loss was with Mike, it definitely gave me new opportunities.

Zibby: That’s a very healthy way of looking at it. There’s the difference between what you know intellectually and then the feelings that you have when you’re going through it. You know it might lead to something good. In the moment, as you described so well, it’s hard to internalize. I’ll just read one more quote on the grief. You wrote, “The tears ran down my face in steady streams. I knew intellectually that the widows were right. I needed to make forward progress. I couldn’t spend the rest of my life drowning in grief. I had to kick my way back to shore. But when you lose someone, you don’t lose them all at once, and their dying doesn’t stop with their death. You lose them a thousand times in a thousand ways. You say a thousand goodbyes. You hold a thousand funerals.” Now I’m crying, oh, my gosh. Oh, this book. Tell me a little more about that passage.

Sara: As you go through grief and life starts to rebuild, there are, sometimes constantly, other time occasionally, striking reminders that you’ve lost your loved one. You’re going along. I was taking my kids somewhere to stay overnight. I was still really depressed back then. Just seeing the happy families or going to take my two boys to soccer where it’s all coached by mostly soccer dads and seeing all these healthy dads supporting the boys, you just feel the loss all over again, again, and again.

Zibby: I wish there was some way to make sure that didn’t happen. I think that’s part of why grief is so unpredictable. It comes and clocks you on the head when you are least expecting it even if you’re having a good day, and then something happens.

Sara: It’s so true.

Zibby: The widows of Concord, I felt like that could’ve been a name for a book as well, the widows of Concord. That’s such a perfect thing. I loved how your sons got so into it that at one point when you started dating, one of your sons said, “No, you can’t get married again because then we’ll be out of the widows group.” I know you touched on this earlier, but tell me just a little more about the power of getting involved in a group like this. I know you were so initially resistant thinking everybody was in much better shape and all the rest. The power of being with people in a similar spot, tell me how that worked for you.

Sara: It was just an incredible experience, honestly. When I talked about how death could give rise to beautiful things, this small group of women in my town — my town only has about twenty thousand people. There were six, and then we had one woman from a neighboring town. What was amazing is that at least for the first couple years, our mindsets were all so similar. Admittedly, we’re of the same kind of demographic. We all had kids ranging in age from about four years old to thirteen at the time. It was amazing with these women because they didn’t judge. No matter what our differences were, our widowhood, our fresh grief was so common that it brought us together. The widows were so funny. You don’t really associate humor with grief, but you kind of have to counterbalance the huge depths of despair. These women had a shocking sense of dark humor. The stuff we joke about — sometimes we were in situations where there’d be other people who weren’t widows, and you should’ve seen the way they looked at us. We got together really regularly on the so-called “important” holidays like Father’s Day, Halloween, Valentine’s Day. Then we’d meet for coffee where our first topic would be how to stay afloat financially. I was the only working widow at the time, but it’s still tough, actually. Then the second topic, equally treacherous, was on dating because you’ve got a lot of baggage. Any single person at that age usually has some baggage, but I feel like we had more heavy baggage.

Zibby: Wow. I love the continuous proof that there are beautiful things that come out of this, and your friendships. I know you wrote a lot in the book about your difficulty finding your crew, basically, in the past and how you were almost relationship-averse, that is was a fluke that you fell in love with your husband and that you could connect in that way. Do you feel like now this has opened you up to all new kinds of friendships, or are you just committed to your widows’ group and that’s kind of it?

Sara: Oddly enough, the widows’ group kind of dispersed. We had a lot in common for the first couple of years, but we all went back to our new normal. The moms whose kids are in college now, they’re doing different things than those of us who still have kids in high school. People seem to get busy with their own hobbies. Ironically, we started meeting again. They had a socially distanced outdoor book party for me. I gave each widow a copy of the book. We’re at least planning to start meeting regularly again, but we’ll see how those go. I try to be open to new experiences.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Let’s talk a little bit about your really unbelievable and inspiring career. I had never really read anything about what it’s like in this industry, and especially as a woman in this industry, and all the discoveries and how people doubted your research at first. Yet you kept at it. Your HuffPost article when you were pointing out to people who didn’t realize it that the demands of having to meet, say, quarterly in person is really tough for a working mom who lives across the country. Tell me a little more about how you keep finding the resilience and the confidence to just keep plunging forward into literally the biggest unknown there could possibly be in the universe and not letting the naysayers and the setbacks throw you off course.

Sara: There’s a few different things. One is, I’ve always loved exploring. I grew up in Canada where canoeing is a thing. We don’t have mountains in Eastern Canada. If you’re going to take up an outdoor sport, it’s going to be something other than mountain climbing. We would go canoeing and do big, adventurous trips in the north of Canada. I feel like science has that same spirit of, wow, wanting to do something new. Don’t you hate it when you want to do something new, whether it’s small or big, and someone says, you’re never going to be able to do that? Has that happened to you?

Zibby: Yes.

Sara: How does that make you feel?

Zibby: Actually, it happened with this podcast.

Sara: There you go. Doesn’t it make you feel angry, like, I’m going to do it, I don’t care what you say?

Zibby: Yeah, to spite them. It’s like, well, watch me go.

Sara: This fuels the fire if someone says, no, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think a lot of people share that feeling. Finally, I do have a specific visualization tool to do this. I do share this with younger women I work with. It’s very common in my field to have the imposter syndrome where you think you don’t belong and you don’t have belief in yourself. What I tell them I also do myself. I try to focus viscerally on my past accomplishments to give myself that inner confidence that I can succeed at anything. How many times as women or moms or whatever are we always kicking ourself or berating or just saying, I could’ve done that better? How many times do you say — this is what I tell my kids — I did the best job I could with the skills I have? Then how many times do we say, wow, I did a great job? Never, right?

Zibby: Yeah.

Sara: We should be spending as much time or more being proud or being complimentary to ourselves as being hard on ourself. I feel like doing those things consciously really helps me reach my goals.

Zibby: It’s funny. Someone who had helped me do something asked afterwards how it had gone. I typed in a text, “I did a really good job.” Then I sat there with the phone in hand and the cursor blinking being like, should I delete that? That sounds terrible. Then I was like, well, I feel like I did do a good job. I want to thank this person and let them know that I didn’t let them down. There’s all this inner critic not allowing ourselves to say that things went well. You’re right. How much better off would we be if our inner voices were constantly encouraging rather than discouraging us?

Sara: Yes, I really, really think that’s important. As a mom, I know my kids wanted — I don’t know if this is going to sound good or bad, but my kids wanted me to be more nurturing. One of them would always say, “Mom, moms make chocolate chip cookies. Moms do this. Moms do that.” Instead of feeling bad, I would just say, “You know, I don’t do that. But you know what? Even though I don’t make cookies, we do all these other things.” It is praising ourselves, but it’s also not beating ourselves up for something that isn’t who we are.

Zibby: That’s true. That’s such a good idea to show that to the kids. Otherwise, they’ll think they can do everything. It’s impossible, so why set them up for failure?

Sara: One time, this big tree branch had fallen on our garage. I had to get rid of it. I remember my kids expressing doubt that I could do it. One of the widows had come over very fashionably dressed in leather pants and the high-heeled boots with a chainsaw and instructions on how to use it. I decided not to use the chainsaw because I wasn’t totally sure I could do that safely. That’s the widows empowering each other. I did have a handsaw. I sawed it, sawed it, sawed it. Finally, it came down. It was so heavy. Honestly, I could’ve really got hurt. You know how heavy even a tree branch is? So heavy. I jumped out of the way just in time. That helped the kids because they were skeptical I could actually take care of that.

Zibby: Wow. I feel like a chainsaw is one of those things you should not be reading instructions for. It should come with some required training instead of a YouTube video. Oh, my goodness. So how long did it take you to write this book? I know you said you did it in found time, basically. What was it like going back and reliving all those emotions again?

Sara: It took a few years to write. It was definitely cathartic. It was incredibly emotional at times. Wow, I would just cry my eyes out sometimes, but it was a good feeling, really good.

Zibby: Would you want to write another book on any topic?

Sara: Maybe someday, yeah. It was one of those things that brought — there was a creative process and narrative process, a storytelling process. It was definitely a lot work, though. I had a fantastic team set up by the publishers. Once the first draft is done, the book is only half done, actually, because they come back and reorganize it or say, do this, do that, do that, do that, total reorg. That happens two or three times, actually. Then the editor will go through it with a finer tooth comb. Finally, we had this absolutely outstanding copy editor. That’s the person who’s just checking for grammar. That person went so far above and beyond and would say, “This sentence makes no sense because a few paragraphs before you said this.” It’s not just the writing itself. As you know, the publishing process took way longer than I ever expected.

Zibby: Your publisher is Crown, right?

Sara: Crown. Right.

Zibby: That’s great. Not everybody has such a great experience with their editors and publishers and everything, so I’m glad that that worked so well. A lot of people do, but not everybody.

Sara: I think I was of the mindset that they know more, so I should just do whatever they say. I did push on a few — there’s a few specific sentences they really didn’t like because they weren’t literal. They were just figurative. There’s one where we’re describing this incident at one of our widows’ get-togethers. One of them is telling us this crushing story that her husband who had died of cancer, the day before he started chemo, she had found in his pile of stuff, he had bought tickets to go to Paris.

Zibby: That was such a sad part.

Sara: Airplane tickets and hotel. He never told anyone because it was a bet against cancer. People do these defiant things. My own husband, he never cared about good clothes. His one and only suit was given to him by his father who happened to be the same size and who had worn it for a few decades. For some reason when my husband was terminally ill, he went out and bought a brand-new suit. Does that make any sense? It’s defying against that prediction of death. She found all of this, literally, I think it was just a few days — she found all of this stuff. The date on the ticket was a few days after he had died. When I wrote this part in the book, it’s one of my favorite sentences in the book because the kids were just playing and they didn’t notice that we widows were telling this story and crying. It ends the paragraph saying, it’s something like, Paris was in full flood. That means we were crying so much about this trip to Paris. The editing team didn’t want that sentence because it doesn’t make sense, really. We were crying, but we’re not in Paris and there’s no flood. It’s just so poetic. Rarely did I really push back. I think my experience was good because I mostly just did whatever they requested. By the way, the widow in question, later on in her life she actually did manage to take her two kids to Paris and had a great time.

Zibby: Aw, that’s such a great coda — is that the right word? — to the story. That’s amazing. I know your kids must be older by now. I know how old they were in the book. Seventeen or something?

Sara: That’s right. The older boy is seventeen. The younger one is fifteen.

Zibby: Have they read your story? Have you shared it with them? How do you feel? No?

Sara: I actually asked them not to read the book until they are adults, like twenty-one, because it’s pretty upsetting. Kids, actually, are resilient. People have died, parents have died for millennia. Kids get over it. I really believe having gone through this with not only my own kids, but watching my widows friends’ kids as well, that in order to be resilient kids brains are designed to forget. A lot of the details in the book, they won’t remember. It might be upsetting for them. A couple other things, before I submitted the book or at some stage, I told them everything that was in the book about them. In one case, I toned something down because the kid requested it. It’s the opening where he has the meltdown on the sledding hill. He thought it sounded worse than it actually was. I went through just as a courtesy because I didn’t want them being embarrassed by anything that was in the book. Then another thing was that one of them, after I said, “Look, I think you shouldn’t read this until you’re twenty-one –” You know how kids push back. If you say you should read it, they’ll never read it. If you say don’t read it, they’ll want to read it. He just said, “Mom, if everyone else in the world gets to read it, isn’t that kind of weird that your own kids who are in the book aren’t supposed to read it?” I said, “Sure. Okay, fine.” We go by logic. If my kids have a logical argument, I don’t say, no, you can’t do it because I said. I always respond to logic. I’m like, “You could, sure. I’m not going to prevent you from reading it, but I just want you to know that sometimes things aren’t as upsetting to people if it’s not about them personally.”

Zibby: That’s true. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Sara: Let me think for a second. I do have a piece of advice that someone gave me early on. For your story, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, there has to be an arc to the story. This might sound obvious, but it’s really harder to implement than it sounds. There has to be a start and an end, but also a rise and a fall and then a rise. In a mystery novel, there’s a plot. Something happens. The characters are trying to solve the mystery. They can’t solve the mystery at the beginning or there’s no book. They have to solve it towards the end, but not right at the end. It’s the same thing. Whatever the story is, and the narrative, there has to be an arc to it.

Zibby: Interesting. One of the things I loved about your book is the way you used time and how you went back and forth in time and how you structured each chapter. However it is you did it, it really worked well in propelling the narrative arc forward. Thank you so much. Thanks for your time.

Sara: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you having me on your call.

Zibby: I absolutely loved your book.

Sara: I wanted to just say, I know your mother-in-law died. It must have been a really crazy few weeks. I’m sure it’s tough.

Zibby: Thank you. Honestly, your book really helped. It’s one of the things that helped the most, so thank you.

Sara: You’re welcome.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Sara: Bye.