Finding meaning in the universe with astrophysicist Hubert Reeves, Part 1

Hubert Reeves is one of the world's foremost experts on the Big Bang and the origins of time. He lives in France, where the acclaimed astrophysicist has the status of a rock star. And yet he's largely unknown in the English-speaking world. Reeves is now 87, and speaks with producer Mary Lynk at his country home in Burgundy, outdoors and under the stars.

The Origins of Us, Part 1 of a 2-part series

Astrophysicist Hubert Reeves is one of the world's foremost experts on the Big Bang and the origins of time. He lives in Paris and Burgundy, France. (Mary Lynk/CBC)

** Originally published on May 21, 2019.

The Big Bang is the opening chapter of our history — the origin of time and our universe.  And the brilliant astrophysicist Hubert Reeves is one of the world's leading experts on this theory.

Born and raised in Quebec, Hubert moved to France in the 1960s to become Director of Research at the renowned French National Center for Scientific Research.

Astrophysicist Hubert Reeves on what came first, the chicken or the egg

4 years ago
Duration 1:20
Astrophysicist Hubert Reeves on what came first, the chicken or the egg

He's also a popularizer of science, who believes that not to explain the complex is undemocratic. In fact, the beloved scientist is treated with rock star status in his adopted country of France. And while he's also treasured in Quebec, he's not well-known in the English-speaking world outside the scientific community.

IDEAS producer Mary Lynk interviewed the thinker at his country estate in Malicorne, Burgundy. He bought the home — a former stable of a 17th century chateau — 40 years ago with his wife, Camille. It is there, walking alone through his gardens and forests, that he feels most inspired. 

Walking among Hubert Reeves' Malicorne gardens. (Nell Turner/CBC)

At Malicorne, we live among the great trees of an old Burgundian farm. I adore planting trees, particularly  those with a long life expectancy: cedars of Lebanon, Himalayan cedars, metasequoias of Szechwan, red oaks, chestnut trees… In our Malicornian jargon, this group of trees is called the "millenary forest." It gives me great satisfaction to feel I'm responsible for these trees, which will long survive me. Should someone take into his head to chop them down, I shall rise from my grave.I pay them visits. Their strong presence speaks to me and inspires me.

 – excerpt from Malicorne: Earthly Reflections of an Astrophysicist 

A prolific writer, Hubert has written dozens of books, some of which have been translated to English. He is also a great lover of poetry, literature and music — and has often hosted classical concerts, accompanying them with readings of poetry and spoken word.

Lately though, Reeves, has been dealing with some health issues, and he has had to cut back on public appearances. But he was able to leave his Paris home, and return to Malicorne for a few days in mid-spring 2019.

And he generously agreed to sit down and chat with Mary Lynk over two days. It was an exploration not only of his life, but also the quest to find meaning in the universe.

The result is this two-part program. The first episode is called: The Origins of Us.

Reeves says the simple sentence, The universe has a history, is probably the most important discovery of the 20th century. But he also cautions about the limits to human knowledge, even with the aid of computers. At this point, 95 per cent of the universe remains unknown to astronomers. And he doubts our brains, despite their impressive structure, will ever be able to fully understand our world.

"There is no guarantee that our way of thinking is able to go to the profoundest depth of the universe," he says. 

At the same time, because of the power of human intellect, Reeves believes it is our duty to protect the natural world. He is a passionate defender of our planet, and speaks out against climate change, and threats to our biodiversity.

Here is a letter which he wrote to accompany this series:

Paris, May 21,  2019

Message to my friends in Canada,

One thing appears clearly today. We are facing a major problem. Our children and grand-children could have to live in a world far different from our world. Our planet earth could become uninhabitable!

We are facing a confrontation between opposite agents: agents of deterioration and agents of restoration. Both agents are becoming more and more powerful. No one knows what the situation will be in fifty years. The future is unknown. It will depend on decisions taken today.

The important thing is not to be optimistic or pessimistic, but be determined to put on top of our agenda: keep the planet habitable.     


Hubert Reeves


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**This episode was produced by Mary Lynk. Part 2 of this series airs on Friday, October 25.