With his patriarchal silhouette – balding head, white beard, sparkling blue eyes – his singing Quebec accent and his precise, colorful words, Hubert Reeves was both the grandfather who could tell us wonderful stories and the wizard who mixed the ingredients of the Universe in his cauldron. A pint of Milky Way, an extract of Moon, a few mysterious grains of dark matter… He explained to us that we were all made of stardust, as most of the elements that make us up, such as carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, come directly from stellar forges. At the end of his time on Earth, on October 13, the astrophysicist returned to this cosmic dust. He was 91 years old.
It was easy to forget he had ever been a child. Yet Reeves, born in Montréal on July 13, 1932, would often travel back in time to his youth. He would evoke the large wooden family home overlooking Lake Saint-Louis, which his grandfather had built at the beginning of the 20th century and where he had so many memories: canoe trips, his mother’s call at nightfall (“Have you seen the sky?”) and, last but not least, his maternal grandmother, Charlotte Tourangeau, to whom Hubert owed his storytelling talents, and who must be mentioned here. Charlotte Tourangeau had no equal when it came to embellishing Charles Perrault’s stories, extending and even mixing them to suit her imagination.
“What you value by saying ‘that’s interesting’, your children find valuable,” he once told Le Monde during a meeting in 2002. “My parents loved anything to do with the natural sciences, so the idea that I would work in science came to me very early on.” Fond of mathematics, the young Reeves opted for theoretical physics, which he studied first in Montreal and then in the United States at Cornell University in New York State, where, he recalled, “the founders of nuclear astrophysics were to be found. There was the magic of the great American universities, where you feel capable of doing great things. There was an infectious creativity that gave you wings.” At Cornell, he completed his thesis under the supervision of Edwin Salpeter (1924-2008), who became famous for showing how stars, by fusing three helium atoms, give rise to a carbon atom.
Reeves dived into the Universe’s past, understanding that to be an astrophysicist was to become the historian of the cosmos and of matter. He was particularly interested in three light elements – lithium, beryllium and boron – too big to have been made at the time of the big bang, but too fragile to have been conceived in the thermonuclear fire of the stars. With Jean Audouze, the Canadian researcher showed that these elements are created when high-energy cosmic rays break up carbon, oxygen or nitrogen nuclei in space. In 2018, astrophysicist Michel Cassé, one of Hubert Reeves’ PhD students, said: “It’s a paper that marked the times. Hubert had a very penetrating way of thinking about things in the sky. He wasn’t sophisticated, he wasn’t a dandy: he really went straight to the point without getting bogged down in frills.”
In the early 1960s, Reeves taught in Montreal and became a scientific advisor to NASA. There, he trained professors for the space science departments that were springing up all over the place in US universities as the conquest of space took off. But, uncomfortable with the nationalist atmosphere in Quebec and eager to explore other horizons, he had his heart set on Europe. In 1964, he took a sabbatical and taught nuclear physics at the Université libre de Bruxelles. He was then invited to share his knowledge in France. It was a turning point in his life. He never looked back.
Director of research at the CNRS, France’s national scientific research center, and scientific advisor to the French Atomic Energy Commission, Reeves has followed a well-established career path. His second life, that of a media darling and storyteller of the stars, fell into his lap somewhat by chance. Encouraged by friends, he wrote a first manuscript entitled Patience dans l’azur (“Patience in the Blue”), in reference to a poem by Paul Valéry. He presented it to some thirty publishers, all of whom refused to publish it, foolishly believing that astronomy was of no interest to anyone, despite the universal questions about the origins of the world to which it provides answers.
Reeves was about to put his manuscript away in a drawer and remain the almost anonymous researcher that he was, until the physicist Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond, who heads the “Science ouverte” collection at Editions du Seuil, suggests that he…write a book. It was already ready: Patience dans l’azur was published in 1981, and the French discovered Reeves who recounted the cosmos like one reads a novel.
“I was told I’d be lucky if it sold three thousand copies. Today, we’ve sold over a million copies and it’s been translated into over thirty languages,” Reeves told Le Monde in 2002. In the early 1980s, fame swooped down on him like a bird of prey on a field mouse, but he knew he had to be wary of it and keep it at arm’s length: “Fame is destabilizing, intoxicating and a little dangerous: you run the risk of getting a big head. Fortunately, my wife and friends keep an eye on me.” The book-television-lecture cycle began. Some thirty books followed Patience dans l’azur, including Dernières nouvelles du cosmos (“Latest news from the Cosmos”, 1994), and his memoirs Je n’aurai pas le temps (“I Won’t Have Time”, 2008).
Defending the environment
A request for a lecture would arrive in the mail everyday and he imposed strict discipline on himself after too much involvement in his work cost him a divorce followed by depression. He gave one lecture a week in France and one a month abroad. In all, he gave more than 2,500 lectures.
Reeves also took on the role of environmentalist. In 2001, he succeeded Théodore Monod as the head of the Ligue ROC for the preservation of wildlife. A few years later, the organization was renamed Humanité et biodiversité (Humanity and Biodiversity), and he became its honorary chairman. His love of nature, inherited from his parents, never left him.
With his second wife, the journalist Camille Scoffier, he bought “a dilapidated old farmhouse,” in northern France, as he recounted in his memoirs. There are century-old oaks there, but Reeves wanted to go further by creating what he called “the millennium forest, trees that can live for over a thousand years: cedars of Lebanon, redwoods, lime trees, ginkgos.”
Distressed by global warming, pollution and the loss of biodiversity that he himself observed in the garden of his country home, he puts his fame at the service of the climate struggle. He wrote articles and called on mayors, members of parliament and candidates in the 2012 presidential election. “In Malicorne, I had long seen him take a deep interest in plants and birds, which meant a lot to him,” Michel Cassé told Le Monde in 2018. He summed up his friend’s career as follows: “After skimming the skies, he became passionate about the Earth.”
In Je n’aurai pas le temps, Reeves asserted that astronomy and ecology could be seen “as two facets of the same theme: our existence. Astronomy, by telling us the story of the Universe, tells us where we came from, and how we came to be here today. Ecology, by making us aware of the threats to our future, aims to tell us how to stay there.”
Translation of an original article published in French on lemonde.fr; the publisher may only be liable for the French version.
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