Impossible is just a provocation

In the middle of what is already a brilliant interview with Lee Billings, author of Five Billion Years of Solitude, I loved this gem of a description. I can think of no matter compliment than to say someone is “one of those rare individuals for whom the ‘impossible’ is just a provocation.”

Your book closes on a moving portrait of one of the most compelling figures in this field, Sara Seager, the MIT professor who has just won a MacArthur Grant for her work on exoplanets. Was there a point in your research when you realized that her story distilled the essence of this larger scientific moment?

In hindsight, it’s all quite clear: Seager began her career at Harvard, working in cosmology, studying the physics behind “recombination,” a cosmic moment less than a million years after the Big Bang when the primordial plasma that filled the universe cooled and condensed into hydrogen atoms. When the first exoplanets were discovered in the mid-1990s, though, she switched to studying them, anticipating that exoplanetology would soon become the hottest, fastest growing field in astronomy. It was a risky move, because at the time not everyone agreed those planets were real; she didn’t even have her PhD yet, and many of her peers and colleagues thought she was making a huge mistake.

But she proved them wrong. With her advisor, Dimitar Sasselov, she hammered out some very important theoretical models and observational techniques that were then used to study that first wave of discovered exoplanets. She never really looked back or second-guessed herself after those initial successes, and just kept relentlessly pushing toward over-the-horizon goals like looking for smaller, more Earth-like planets and finding ways to study them for signs of life. It’s my sense that Seager is one of those rare individuals for whom the “impossible” is just a provocation. She has immense drive and discipline, and when someone tells her she can’t do something, it’s like pouring gasoline on a fire.

In her shift away from cosmology, in her refusal to be intimidated by naysayers or cowed by great difficulties, in her steadfast pursuit of “impossible” dreams, she really embodies the ethos of the exoplanet revolution now sweeping through space science. I’m not the only one who saw that about Seager—a lot of people have seen it, I think, and in seeing it they all thought the same thing: She might be the one who really makes this happen, the person who leads the charge and gets the light of other living worlds and proves for the first time in history that humanity is not alone.

I had been talking to Sara periodically about her exoplanetology work since 2007, but the recognition that she was a microcosm of the field at large didn’t really begin to dawn on me until 2011, when we met for lunch at a science conference in Washington, DC. Over lunch she revealed to me some profoundly difficult events she’d been struggling with in her personal life, events that form a key part of her story in the book. Suddenly the individual I was sharing a meal with was no longer an all-knowing, nigh-invincible scientific demigoddess—she was a fragile and conflicted and scared wife and mother, all too human in her vulnerability and sorrow. Some of her dreams had been shattered forever. Over the course of our subsequent interviews and interactions, I watched as Sara slowly picked up the pieces she could and rebuilt herself, stronger and even more driven than before.

That sudden individual shift from unstoppable and triumphant to mournful and mortal reminded me of the large-scale changes I had witnessed as I researched the book, as ambitious government plans to build big, billion-dollar space telescopes to find habitable planets and extrasolar life were delayed, defunded, or entirely cancelled. Those plans were scuttled for complex reasons, few of which had anything at all to do with astronomy. I think they are indicative and symptomatic of our modern society’s broader struggle to come together to achieve great, enduring feats.

Read ‘Are We Alone?’ in full.

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Impossible is just a provocation