Although a five-member international team of astronomers recently took credit for identifying what appears to be a previously unknown planet, the thrill of first noticing the heavenly body belonged to a single individual, Robert Stefanik.

Working in solitude late one night at the Oak Ridge Observatory 30 miles outside of Cambridge, Mass., Stefanik, using a 55-year-old telescope, detected an almost imperceptible wobble in the motion of a star some 90 light-years from Earth. It was this lone scientist’s vigilance in staring at a star 522 trillion miles out in space that set the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s team onto its path toward achievement.

The loneliness of the long-distance stargazer has always been a part of the astronomer’s discipline, observes one of Stefanik’s teammates, Tsevi Mazeh. “In the end,” Mazeh says, “there is only one person or a couple of persons sitting through the whole lonely night behind the telescope. In a...

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