MACLEAN’S HONOUR ROLL 2000

Hubert Reeves

‘It s a very intense feeling when you're alone before the sky'

Brenda Branswell December 18 2000
MACLEAN’S HONOUR ROLL 2000

Hubert Reeves

‘It s a very intense feeling when you're alone before the sky'

Brenda Branswell December 18 2000

Hubert Reeves

‘It s a very intense feeling when you're alone before the sky'

In a darkened suburban Montreal classroom, Hubert Reeves, the internationally renowned Quebec astrophysicist, stands before a rapt audience. The 40 kindergarten students fidget constantly, but their eyes are glued to Reeves’s slide show. Each time a planet, comet or star appears on the screen, they go “ahhhhh!” Reeves, 68, is one of the world’s leading experts on the big bang theory—that the universe began some 15 billion years ago with a fiery explosion. But here at Ecole Nouvelle Querbes elementary school, the five-foot, four-inch intellectual giant with the white beard and wispy hair is simply an unassuming guest speaking to his grandson’s class.

Reeves has a flair for making complex information understandable—even to five-yearolds. In addition to publishing 10 books, the Montreal-born Reeves has become a popular figure in France, where he lives 10 months a year and appears frequendy on television and in lecture halls. “I never imagined that I would become a popularizer,” he says later. When he peddled his first book, which explored the geography and history of the universe, 30 publishers turned him down. “They told me, ‘Astronomy doesn’t interest anybody,’ ” recalls Reeves. He proved otherwise. He eventually found a Parisian publisher for Patience dans l’azur: LEvolution cosmique {Atoms of Silence: An Exploration of Cosmic Evolution). Released in 1982, the book was an enormous success, selling more than one million copies in 23 languages. That and subsequent best-sellers have led to major literary and other awards in France and Canada. Reeves showed a passion for science growing

up in Montreal. At 16, he secured a summer job at Harvard University’s observatory near Cambridge, Mass. “It was fantastic to spend my nights observing the sky,” he recalls. Later, Reeves obtained degrees from the Université de Montréal and McGill University before heading to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he earned his doctorate in nuclear astrophysics in 1960. This was the nascent period of the American space program, and Reeves juggled teaching duties at the Université de Montréal with work as a consultant for NASA’s Institute for Space Studies in New York City. In 1964, he moved his family and four children to Europe for a teaching job in Belgium. A year later, he became director of research at the prestigious Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris.

Reeves likens his work on the big bang theory to that of a historian. “It’s really an extraordinary story to be able to go back to the first second of the universe,” he says. Reeves retired last year, but remains active in all aspects of academia. Every spring and fall, he returns to Quebec to visit family and give academic lectures. The rest of the year, Reeves and his wife divide their time between a home in Paris and a farm in Burgundy where they sometimes stargaze. His face crinkles into a smile on the subject of Venus, his favourite planet. At nightfall in a slightly bluish sky, the glowing planet is an extraordinary spectacle, he says. “It’s a very intense feeling when you’re alone before the sky,” adds Reeves. “I find it really a very profound sensation.”

Brenda Branswell