From Saturday's Globe and Mail
It has been more than 450 years since Copernicus demonstrated that Earth isn't at the centre of things, but for most people the news has yet to sink in. Poor, deluded Earthlings, you think you're special: You fixate on a single rocky planet just because it's yours and act as though the night sky is an ornament to your existence rather than a monumental challenge to your uniqueness.
Watch out, world: Sara Seager plans to prove that we're not alone.
The wiry 39-year-old Canadian is a precocious pioneer in the hunt for exoplanets, the celestial bodies orbiting far-off stars. As a member of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Kepler mission team, she is engaged in a long-term quest to shift the very underpinnings of our consciousness and prove that there's life outside our tiny solar system.
“For thousands of years, people have wondered if there's life beyond Earth,” she says during a recent expedition to the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ont.
“We're the first generation with the technical capability to show that there is. Potentially we'll be the society that discovers the first extrasolar life – and in 1,000 years, people will remember our era as the starting point of the interstellar journey they've embarked on.”
Earth-centred complacency is no longer an option as new information from the orbiting Kepler space telescope transforms the meaning of the night sky. How many planets does our single galaxy contain? About 50 billion, Kepler's chief scientist declared last week, of which 500 million are in the habitable zone where life could exist.
Now, it's up to planetary detectives such as Sara Seager to turn Kepler's not-so-distant dreams into reality.
What kind of person goes searching for signs of life in remote galaxies? For Sara Seager, the starting point was her uncomfortable relationship with this small world of ours.
“I may look like I fit in, but I'm a born outsider. I realized this when I was 5 or 6, sitting in the back of the station wagon with a bunch of other girls on the way home from school. I looked at them and realized that I had nothing in common with these people. But it wasn't a sad thought: Because if you don't fit in, then you don't have to do normal things.”
Prof. Seager gives full credit to her father, a suburban Toronto general practitioner turned hair-transplant pioneer, who urged her to take on new projects and pursue abnormal passions, including astronomy.
Working with her students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she is now preparing to launch a fleet of nanosatellites that will monitor the brightest stars in the sky, intensifying the hunt for planets that most closely resemble Earth.
“This is going to change the paradigm of space telescopes,” she says with the breezy certainty of a born paradigm-buster.
She has been called “one of the guiding lights in the field of exoplanet research” by planet-hunter Debra Fischer of Yale University.”
A Kepler colleague, Geoff Marcy, observes that the young Canadian astrophysicist “has pioneered several entirely new areas of planetary science, including the detection of Earth-like planets around other stars and the assessment of their chemical composition as gleaned from the light coming from their atmospheres.”
Appropriately for a woman who feels constrained by a single solar system, Prof. Seager doesn't hold back on her scientific ambitions. “We want to change the way people see their place in the universe,” she says with cosmic immodesty. “My aim is to take people and point at a star you can see with the naked eye in a really dark sky and say, ‘That star has a planet like Earth.' ”
Cautionary warning for alien trackers: The discovery of a small, rocky, Earth-like planet is only the starting point for finding the first hints of distant life, such as water vapour in the atmosphere. And even then, the kind of life water might generate doesn't need to reach ET standards: Single-celled bacteria will do quite nicely in Prof. Seager's mission.
“I'm in this to find life, but the life I'll find won't be aliens,” she says, marking a clear separation from the Sigourney Weaver style of extraterrestrial confrontations.