Excerpt from The Smallest Lights in the Universe by Sara Seager, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Smallest Lights in the Universe

A Memoir

by Sara Seager

The Smallest Lights in the Universe by Sara Seager X
The Smallest Lights in the Universe by Sara Seager
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2020, 320 pages
    Aug 2021, 336 pages


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A Stargazer Is Born

I was ten years old when I first really saw the stars. I was mostly a city kid, so I didn't often experience true darkness. The streets of Toronto were my universe. My parents had split up when I was very young, and my brother, sister, and I spent a lot of time on our own, riding subways, exploring alleys. Sometimes we had babysitters barely older than we were. One of them, a boy named Tom, asked my father to take all of us camping.

Camping wasn't my father's idea of a good time. Canadians escape to "cottage country" as often as they can, snaking out of the city in great lines of weekend traffic, aiming for some sacred slice of lake and trees. Dr. David Seager was British, and he often wore a tie on weekends; for him, sleeping in the woods was something that animals did.

But Tom must have made a pretty good case, because the next thing I knew, we were on our way north. We went to a provincial park called Bon Echo, carved out of a small pocket of Ontario, three or four hours from Toronto. Bon Echo includes a string of beautiful lakes, almost black against the green of the trees. There are white beaches and pink granite cliffs—­perfect for jumping off into the cool water, after climbing as high as you dare—­and thick red beds of pine needles on the forest floor. Bon Echo was the prettiest place I'd ever been.

Maybe it was the absence of city sounds that made it hard for me to sleep. I was in a tent with my siblings. We had set up a little suitcase between us like a nightstand. (As usual, we had been left to our own devices, this time to pack. We had no idea that campers generally don't bring suitcases.) My brother and sister were making the soft noises that sleeping children make.

Jeremy was the oldest and tall for his age. He had only a year on me, but it was a crucial year, and he usually ended up in charge, dictating our daily activities from his great height. Julia was the youngest, beautiful and boisterous with a perpetual light in her eyes. She was everybody's favorite. I occupied the middle in every sense, small and silent. I was the dark one. Jeremy and Julia have blond hair and blue eyes; I have brown hair and hazel eyes. My eyes were also the only ones open that night.

I unzipped the tent's flap and ducked out into the dark. I wandered just far enough away to clear the last of the trees.

That's when I looked up.

My heart stopped.

All these years later, I can still remember that feeling in my chest. It was a moonless night, and there were so many stars—­hundreds, perhaps thousands—­over my head. I wondered how such beauty could exist, and I wondered, too, why nobody had ever told me about it. I must have been the first person to see the night sky. I must have been the first person in human history who had braved her way outside and looked up. Otherwise the stars would have been something that people talked about, something that children were shown as soon as we could open our eyes. I stood and stared for what felt like hours but was probably seconds, a little girl who understood how to navigate the chaos of a big city and a broken home, but who now had been given her first glimpse of real mystery.

I was overwhelmed by what felt like too much light, too much knowledge to take in all at once. I ran back to the tent, curled up beside my sleeping sister, and tried to be just ten years old again, listening to the sweet sound of her breathing.

My father lived outside Toronto, in a series of neat and orderly apartments and bungalows. My mother lived in a former rooming house, in what was a battered part of town called the South Annex, with my stepfather, piles of old newspapers, and an army of cats named after literary characters. She was a writer, a poet.

I never became close with children who weren't related to me, so I didn't know how different our family was. When I'm feeling generous I tell myself that we were lucky to live without any of the usual constraints imposed by more conventional upbringings. I learned to believe that freedom is precious however it's given to you, and our almost impossible freedom helped make us who we are today: Jeremy is a nurse; Julia is a harpist; I'm an astrophysicist. But when I reflect on the realities of our young lives, I can hardly believe we survived, especially when I look at my boys at the same age. We were cubs, turned out to run with the bears.

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Excerpted from The Smallest Lights in the Universe by Sara Seager. Copyright © 2020 by Sara Seager. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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