Hubert Reeves: Poet of the Stars | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Hubert Reeves: Poet of the Stars

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

The renowned Canadian astrophysicist Hubert Reeves, described recently by an admirer as a "5 foot four inch intellectual giant” and ”the world's leading expert on the big bang theory” has devoted his life to uncovering the history of the universe and to sharing his knowledge with people around the world. Indeed, Reeves considers this sharing one of the primary obligations of a scientist because the implications of scientific discoveries "go beyond science to alter our vision of the world.” He writes that "science challenges the way we think about the meaning of life" because it "will help us make moral decisions by enriching the context in which philosophical questions are framed.” In this regard, Reeves, like other notable stargazers, is not unlike Albert Einstein, whose passionate sense of social justice and social responsibility might be compared to Reeves's own deep concern for humanity's future and the welfare of the planet.

Hubert Reeves

The many major international scientific and literary awards and honours Reeves has received reflect equally his achievements in his specialty, nuclear astrophysics, and his success at communicating in simple terms the intimate connection between the cosmos and human life. For Reeves, a scientist of the heart and the mind, "we are all children of the universe, sons and daughters of stars that have generated the atoms of our bodies,” because, " the very existence of the human brain, as a product of cosmic evolution is linked to developments that stretch back over 15 billion years.” For Reeves this is both a cause for unending wonder and a source of profound responsibility.

Born in Montreal on July 13, 1932, Reeves was drawn to science from an early age, but he also inherited from his family a great love of art and music. His explanations of cosmic evolution are filled with analogies to the creative process, and particularly to the work of composers. There are, he says, surprising parallels between artistic activity and activity in nature, "not only do they play the same game, but they play it under practically the same conditions.” In art, the outcome changes but the goal remains constant: "to provide a framework within which and through which the work of art may be put together and take shape.” So too, "nature's game-playing has brought forth an almost unlimited variety of complex structures” which reflect implied order as well as chance and necessity.

Reeves life's work has often been distinguished by his search for a compromise between the different ways that science and art reveal and interpret the world. In his book Malicorne, named for the village in Burgundy in which he lives most of the year, he describes the major turning-point of his life: his discovery, at the age of 18, that scientific knowledge might have a price. It is a moment, he writes, "still engraved in my memory after forty years." It compelled him to confront the puzzle of knowledge: How can we pretend not to know what we know? And does that knowledge limit the possibilities of understanding the world even as it opens new horizons?

Reeves was an apprentice at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory. While meditating on the glory of a sunset over the ocean it came to him that its astonishing beauty could be explained in "excellent mathematical representation of light's behaviour.” The formula derived from the work of a 19th century Scottish physicist named James Clerk Maxwell, the learning of whose theories "mark one of the great moments of apprenticeships in physics.” The equations themselves were "superb, mathematically elegant, and functional," but Reeves feared that his ability to reduce the play of light and colour to a result "perfectly predictable and calculable” from the right set of numbers might forever limit his instinctive response to the natural world. From that time onwards he set out "to reclaim the right to enjoy in peace the sight of pink waves” and his lifelong quest led him beyond his own specialty into the fields of chemistry, biology, biochemistry, philosophy, psychology and ecology.

At the age of only 33, Reeves, an assistant professor in physics at the Université de Montréal and scientific advisor to the Institute for Space Studies at NASA and at Columbia University, was appointed director of research at one of France's most prestigious institutions, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). He became recognized early in his career as one the world's experts on the origin of light elements - helium, deuterium, lithium. By 1971 he had written three books on the evolution of the universe and in 1976 received the first of many honours he has accrued when he was made a Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mérite by the government of France.

Hubert Reeves' ability to make complex and often arcane scientific theories accessible even to young children has made him a familiar figure in the French-speaking world. Although he insists that "I never imagined that I would become a popularizer” his success seems almost pre-ordained given his innate gifts as a communicator. Nevertheless, his first of many best-sellers, Atoms of Silence: An Exploration of Cosmic Evolution (Patience dans l'azur: L'Evolution cosmique, tr 1981) was rejected by 30 publishers before it was finally released in 1982. Translated into 25 languages, it has sold more than a million copies.

Reeves often compares his work to that of an historian, and even in his most accessible books the story of cosmic evolution that he recounts inspires not only awe but difficult questions about the past and future of humanity. From the first instant of its existence as "very hot, very dense, very bright and completely without form,” the universe contained within itself all the complex elements it would need to develop into maturity. For Reeves, the fact that it would have been possible 15 billion years ago to predict not only the appearance of atoms, but also of molecules, planets, oceans and the first life forms has profound implications. Would it have been possible to predict the appearance of the human race? In response Reeves speculates with caution that if the aim of the universe was to develop self-awareness, then it would have evolved precisely as it has, and quotes the physicist Freeman Dyson that "in some part of itself, the universe knew that mankind would appear.”

If the universe contained at its inception the elements that would evolve into the human brain, is conscience a product of evolution as well? In response, Reeves notes that while scientific knowledge is cumulative, the moral sense does not appear to follow the same pattern. However, the scientific progress of the last 50 years has its "shadow side.” Reeves points to the irony in his own discipline -- the vast new insights into the structure and processes of the universe would perhaps not have come about if there had not been a drive in 1939 to build the atom bomb.

For many years Reeves has been highly active in the environmental movement, speaking out on behalf of various causes but particularly those focused on species extinction. Although he officially retired in 1999, he continues this work both in France and in Canada.

In pondering whether humanity is capable of finding its proper place in the order of life, Reeves stresses that the species that survive are those able to live within the planet's ecosystem. The problem, he believes, lies in the uneasy relationship not between humanity and nature, but between intelligence and nature, and that "on our planet, it's the human being whose intelligence has outstripped that of any other species.” Like many other scientists he is dismayed with the way that scientific knowledge has been used to help humanity "eagerly pursue its own self-destruction.” Reeves does not, however, consider humanity an error of evolution. He locates his optimism for the future in the nature of optimism itself: an energy that creates like energy, and the continual strength he draws from his first love - staring at the stars - and his favourite planet, Venus. "It is a very intense feeling to be alone before the sky,” he has written, "a very profound sensation.”