Finding meaning in the universe with astrophysicist Hubert Reeves, Part 2

Astrophysicist Hubert Reeves is one of the world's leading experts on the Big Bang theory. But as IDEAS producer Mary Lynk found out, not only is the French-Canadian a brilliant cosmologist; he's also a riveting storyteller and popularizer of science. Not to explain the complex, he says, is undemocratic. This is part 2 of a 2-part series.

The Beauty of Chance, Part 2 of a 2-part series

Astrophysicist Hubert Reeves talks with producer Mary Lynk in the garden of his country home in Burgundy, France. (Mary Lynk)
Listen to the full episode53:58

** Originally published on May 28, 2019.

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. In Quebec, where he was born, he is also treasured. And yet he's largely unknown in the English-speaking world.

In 2001, Reeves won the prestigious Albert Einstein Prize for his earlier work which gave "the first indication of how much ordinary matter exists in the universe."  The discovery came to him, not in a lab, but on a train in the Alps.  

You search something for some time, and all of a sudden an idea comes. And you say: How did I not think of it before!- Hubert Reeves

Not only is he a brilliant cosmologist; he's also a riveting storyteller and popularizer of science. Not to explain the complex, he says, is undemocratic.

In Part Two of this series, The Beauty of Chance, Hubert Reeves talks about the dance between chance and necessity in shaping our universe. Necessity represents the laws of nature, while chance brings us surprise, and often beauty.

Without chance, says Hubert Reeves, "There would be no Mozart, there would be nothing…..there would be monotony, just monotony."

Astrophysicist Hubert Reeves on the meaning of the universe 1:48

Hubert Reeves is deeply concerned about the future of our planet, given climate change and the threats to biodiversity. But he's neither pessimistic, nor optimistic.

It is true that the dangers are great. I will summarize the situation as I see it.  There are two different powers. One, power of deterioration; and one, power of restoration… and (they) are becoming more and more powerful… So it is like a fight with two fighters, which are gaining power. No one knows who will win.

For those who are feeling hopeless, he says, "If you take the attitude that all is lost, then all is lost." He adds that the world doesn't need hopelessness. It needs action, to ensure that the power of restoration will triumph.

Hubert Reeves with producer Mary Lynk. (Nell Turner/CBC)

Reeves is a prolific and best-selling author, with more than 20 acclaimed scientific books, many of which have been translated into several languages, including English. And his passions extend beyond science, to the arts and music. He also writes poetry, and has shared one with IDEAS (see below).

At 87, Hubert Reeves has experienced some health issues, which have made him cancel public appearances. But he was able to travel from his Paris home to his 17th century estate in Malicorne, Burgundy. It was there that he spoke with IDEAS producer Mary Lynk.

Hubert Reeves is one of the world's foremost experts on the Big Bang and the origins of time. 0:33

Earth blue planet by Hubert Reeves

Earth, blue planet, where elated astronomers capture the light of stars at the outermost bounds of space.

Earth, blue planet, where a cosmonaut, at the port-hole of his shuttle, names the continents of his childhood's geography.

Earth, blue planet, where an asphodel sprouts in the entrails of a migratory bird that died exhausted on a rock on the high seas.

Earth, blue planet, where a dictator celebrates Christmas with family while bodies burn, by the thousands, in crematory ovens.

Earth, blue planet, where after a thunderous separation from an ice cap, a bluish iceberg begins its long ocean voyage.

Earth, blue planet, where in a suburban train station, a family awaits a political prisoner, locked up for twenty years.

Earth, blue planet, where every spring the sun brings back the flowers in the dark undergrowth.

Earth, blue planet, where sixteen families have amassed more riches than forty-eight destitute countries.

Earth, blue planet, where an orphan throws himself off the third floor to escape the cruel treatment of his wardens.

Earth, blue planet, where at nightfall a mason proudly contemplates the brick wall he built all day long.

Earth, blue planet, where a choir master writes the last notes of a cantata which will delight people's hearts for many centuries.

Earth, blue planet, where a mother holds her baby that died of aids, having transmitted the disease to her husband at the village fair.

Earth, blue planet, where a solo navigator watches his tall mast collapse under the impact of breaking waves.

Earth, blue planet, where on a psychoanalyst's sofa, a man remains mute.

Earth, blue planet, where a deer agonizes in a bush, wounded by a hunter that did not seek it out.

Earth, blue planet, where a woman dressed in dazzling  colours selects green vegetables from an African market stand.

Earth, blue planet, making its fourth billion five hundred fifty-sixth million rotation around a sun completing its twenty-fifth revolution around the Milky Way.

(Translation by Natalie Geddry, CBC/Radio-Canada)

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**This episode was produced by Mary Lynk.