Olivier Le Fèvre

Olivier Le Fèvre

It was the winter of 1998. I was reaching the end of my thesis in Durham, England, and I knew it was time to start looking for a new city to live in, a new place to go. By this point in my life I’d already spent almost three years in North America (Socorro, New Mexico, and Victoria, BC) and six years in England (Durham and Manchester), and I knew that I really didn’t want to live in those kinds of of places any more, I knew that they weren’t for me. But was there any place in Europe that did the kind of science I wanted to do, what I had done in Canada and England? By that I meant surveys of the Universe with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of galaxies, studying what everything looked like on the largest scales, finding new objects and galaxies that no-one had ever gazed upon before. So I was more than just intrigued when I saw the job advertisement for a postdoctoral research assistant at the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique Spatiale (LAS), in Marseille. “Observational cosmology / VLT-VIRMOS deep redshift survey” it said. They were looking for someone to help out with a survey of the distant Unvierse that would be an order of magnitude larger than anything attempted before using a new instrument on one of the four European Very Large Telescopes, in Chile. And I although in my ignorance I had never heard of the LAS, I had certainly heard of the person offering the position — Olivier Le Fevre. He had already authored or co-authored many papers on distant galaxies, surveys, clustering, all the kinds of topics that I had been immersed in during my studies. In my anglocentric innocence I wasn’t sure if this science was being done in the Old World. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to do some exciting work on the shores of the Meditteranean. I had never been to the south of France before and after long years in the North of England I was ready for sunshine. I applied, and was invited for an interview.

I remember very clearly that I had arrived early at the LAS and was waiting in the lobby for Olivier to arrive. The building dated from the 1970s; outside the facade was all lightly-tarnished metal and glass and inside there were narrow corridors with worn linoleum on the floor. It had been well lived in. Outside, the sun shone brightly even on that early in the morning in winter and from the lobby it was hard to see who was coming through the doors. I stood with Vincent Le Brun, waiting, and I saw the silhouette of a tall man walking towards me, ah there he is now … and I was surprised. He seemed to be only slighly older than me. He was tall, handsome, athletic and impeccably dressed. But from his impressive publication record I was expecting a greybeard and not this man I saw before me.

During my one-day stay at the LAS I was very well looked after. Olivier and Alain Mazure took me to lunch at a restaurant nearby surrounded by the rolling green fields of a golf course. I remembered Roger Davies’ advice and spoke slowly during my talk which detailed our painful efforts during my thesis in Durham to map a tiny part of the sky with hundreds of hours of telescope time. I soon learned that Olivier’s under-construction VIMOS instrument, combined with the new wide-field cameras coming online at the Canada-France-Hawaii-Telescope, planned to make all this instantly redundant and open up a completely new window on the Universe. Precise distance measurements would be possible for tens of thousands of galaxies and there would be photometry for millions more. The galaxy-counting skills I learned at Durham were what the team needed to help make the input catalogues for this new instrument. After my talk, I spent some time with Olivier in his office. I was immediately taken by the his motivation and the vast amount of data he intended to collect and the chance that it might answer all those hanging questions we’d had until now. It was very exciting and it was in France!

A few months later I had finished my thesis, and on the first week in January 1999, I started my postdoctoral position at the LAS with Olivier. Incredibly, they had offered me the position; I was certain that there must have been crowds of people banging on the doors of the LAS. Only later did I discover that there was only one other applicant. “Observational cosmology”, as Olivier’s job application promised, had yet to really come to the LAS which was not yet on the post-doc radar. A colleague from the UK even confided in me that he wouldn’t ring a telephone number in a French laboratory in case the person picking up the telephone spoke French to him! I soon discovered I was the only post-doc in the lab and in those early days almost the only person in the building after 19:00. The LAS had a certain charm: and there was a long table outside under the trees where you could eat lunch most days. After a few months there I got to know some wonderful people and my French steadily improved. However, the “observational cosmology group” promised in Olivier’s job announcement for the moment didn’t comprise more than five people, including myself and two or three students. I mention all this here only to insist that the LAM (the fusion of the LAS and Marseille Observatory) has become the great force that is today in surveys largely thanks to Olivier’s work.

In 1999, however, such a happy ending was far from certain. Data was steadily arriving from CFHT telescopes in Hawaii and the computer in my office had attached disks piling up to the ceiling. Could we keep with the data? Worse yet, VIMOS turned out to be a very challenging instrument to build and commission. It took all of Oliver’s skills in management and persuasion to get the instrument on the sky and keep to the schedule. The team worked very well together and although there was a very long period before the spectra arrived Olivier kept us motivated. At an observing run in Hawaii I met Yannick Mellier who put the resources of TERAPIX at our disposal which helped us a lot with the early data. In the end, despite these difficult early years, tens of thousands of spectra were collected and VIMOS has gone on to be one the most successful instruments at ESO.

Already, in the first few years of new century, the context was changing: in the space of a few short years observational cosmology was gaining in importance in the community. The group at LAS was growing. The skills I had learned were becoming increasingly important, important enough that in the summer of 2003 I was recruited as a staff astronomer at the Institute d’Astrophysique de Paris. Olivier played a very important role in that change through his tireless support of countless other projects and instruments. For example, the VIMOS spectrograph turned out to be a crucial instrument for spectroscopic follow-up of the COSMOS survey, one of the largest-ever allocations of Hubble Space Telescope time. As well as that, Olivier brought TERAPIX into the COSMOS project to help with initial imaging at CFHT. That was the origin of my own highly fulfilling involvement with the COSMOS project, a collaboration which is still going strong after a decade.

In the winter of 2017 at a meeting in Paris I told him that I had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The treatment was going well, I said. I am sure I told him (as I told everyone) that if you want to have a cancer, that’s the one you should get; treatment is straightforward. Unfortunately, only a week or so later, he would fall from his bicycle and be diagnosed with a brain tumor. It didn’t slow him down. He worked as tirelessly as ever to realise his countless projects even as his body weakened. He still came to meetings. He was there at at our COSMOS meeting in Copenhagen in the summer of 2018. One evening, Olivier, and Olivier Ilbert and myself ate together in a restaurant, outside on the terrace. Olivier was unfailingly positive even though he must have known his chances of survival were slim.

Today, more than twenty years after my first meeting with him in that distant winter of 1998, observational cosmology and survey astronomy is now firmly established in France. And this is in large part due to Olivier’s work.

In the bardo

In the bardo

So how much longer will the confinement last? That’s what everone here wants to know. According to the Bardo Thödol a soul must wander for seven times seven days after death before being re-born (or, if you you are lucky, pass to a higher level of consciousness). So that’s it ! We have just over three weeks left. Let’s see what happens: we wouldn’t want to find ourselves re-incarnated as some lesser creature (say, an insect). One thing is certain is that our lives after won’t resembles our lives before. While in the Bardo, holy men try to talk to the soul of the departed to provide advice and guide them to a “good” reincarnation. Here in our Bardo however we have zoom. The thing is, most of the people we are talking to don’t realise that they too are also in the Bardo…

“An apocalypse with French characteristics”

“An apocalypse with French characteristics”

You see, a few weeks ago, I had invited friends and family from the four corners of the globe to come to Paris for my birthday at the end of the month. Of course, I didn’t expect that the celebrations would be disrupted by a full-on Earth Abides-type situation, but that is precisely what has happened. I didn’t expect that that little protein-coated bundle of RNA straight outta Wuhan (only 20,000 base pairs!) would arrive here so rapidly and have such a pervasive effect on our everyday life.

George R. Stewarts’ Earth Abides, for those of you who don’t know it, is one of the most classic romans d’anticipation of all time (the French term for SF is just so much better; here I feel that SF is treated with respect). It is also a work of poetry and literature. I read the book when I was 17 and again in my 20s, and it has stayed with me ever since. The protagonist is a graduate student in geology who is up in the hills getting data for his thesis (as you do) when he is bitten by a snake. He falls ill, then falls ill again. In his fever, two men come into his shack, see him lying there, and then leave quickly. Were they really there? He imagines that it is a dream. Eventually, he recovers and comes down from the mountain to discover that he is (almost) the only person left alive. The world’s population has been decimated by a highly contagious and lethal disease which he was protected from by his snake-bite. That is the start of the book.

Stewart’s day job was a forestry ranger with the parks service and what the book is really about is the relationship between man and his environment. How natural systems have been perturbed by humans and how they will change when humans are no longer there. It is also about the relationship of humans to their culture. In Stewart’s book nobody is battling to save civilisation like desperate scientists in a laboratory surrounded by zombies. Civilisation disappears and the few people who are left have a hard time remembering what was the point of it, actually. Stewart’s character, Ish, valiantly tries to keep the Berkeley public library in order and the books in good condition but nobody is too interested in reading and pretty soon nobody can read. His goal of preserving culture and learning recedes and by the end of the book he is happy to have passed on a few suggestions on how to make weapons that don’t depend people using up their rapidly-depleting stock of ammunition.

All of these thoughts have been running through my head over the last few days. Like many places in Europe, our lives have been put under an increasingly severe series of restrictions in order to slow the spread of those RNA base-pairs . The main immediate effect of these restrictions is to greatly reduce the volume of traffic in the centre of Paris. Our apartment, which faces a long tree-lined avenue, normally vibrates imperceptibly to a slow background rumble of cars and lorries. But now, nothing. Opening the window, a car can be heard passing every few tens of seconds, if not less. On the street below one can now hear people’s voices. Birds can be heard signing. Just after the latest restrictions came into force, I leaned out the window and saw a rat the size of a squirrel scuttling from the bushes in the middle of the avenue and to the pavement and back again. In the middle of the day!

A homage to a certain photographer. But I don’t have a watch.

A quick walk around the neighbourhood reveals the fuller extent of our apocalypse with French characteristics . Unlike in Spain or Italy, we are not in total lock-down (this was written three days ago; enforcement is much more vigorous today on Saturday morning). You are still allowed to leave the apartment for a range of reasons, providing of course (this being France) you have a signed piece of paper explaining why you are not at home. Not all businesses have closed. The supermarkets are open (and the shelves slowly being re-stocked after the panic-buying of the last few days). In my very short walk on Thursday morning I met a few joggers and elderly ladies walking their dogs. I saw delivery vans bringing produce and electronic goods from Amazon warehouses to people’s homes. Everyone studiously is maintaining a nervously safe distance from everyone else. This morning it was quieter than the quietest day of the year, the 15th of August. Many people have left the city, those wealthy Parisians who have secondary homes in the countryside. We are all supposed to be working diligently at home (teletravail is what’s called here), thanks to the wonder of the internet. Yes, it’s not exactly Earth Abides. The idea that life should continue as normal, electronically, in the midst of all that suddenly seems strange to me. In some ways we are lucky that our lives can be abstracted away like this, converted into bits. But is so sad to see this great city empty of people.

Underland and Arranmore

Underland and Arranmore

I’ve recently finished reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, a poetic and profound book about all that is hidden. Macfarlane descends into caves, tunnels and holes all around the world as well as climbing a few mountains too. Much of it is genuinely terrifying especially as MacFarlane interleaves his stories with tales of similar past expeditions which went tragically wrong. And MacFarlane travels to Paris.

The entrance to the Underland…is somewhere in the second tunnel

While I was reading the book, I took a walk down to the Petit Ceinture, the abandoned railway that rings Paris and that passes under the Mountsouris not far from here. Like the High-Line in New York, the railway has now been rehabilitated for Sunday strollers. The day that I went there, surprisingly, the gate leading to the tunnel under Montsouris was open. There in the middle of that tunnel there used to be an entrance to the carrières, Paris’ former underground quarries where the limestone that made famous monuments all around Paris were extracted. The middle of that tunnel is dark, silent and damp. Today, the entrance to that Parisian Underland that Macfarlane writes about in his book is closed, sealed off. But there in the middle of the tunnel, daylight a thin semicircle a few hundred yards away, one can catch more than just a whiff of the solitude and isolation, so paradoxical a sensation in such a crowded and dense city.

Continuing in the book, I found myself agreeing with much of what Macfarlane wrote, impressed by his learning, nodding in agreement with his little sketch of the scientist making incredible measurements in a cave deep underground with as about as much drama as someone buttering a slice of bread. That’s what science teaches you to do, it tells you how to confront the infinite and to abstract it away so it can’t touch you or affect your judgement.

Further on in the book I found this passage:

In the Celtic Christian tradition, ‘thin places’ are those sites in a landscape where the borders between worlds or epochs feel at their most fragile. Such locations were, for the peregrini or wandering devouts of circa AD 500 to 1000, often to be found on westerly headlands, islands, caves, coasts or other brinks. This place [Norway], now is one of the thinnest I have ever been.

I looked down again at the words I was reading and I saw that my bookmark was in fact a thin test strip of baryta paper on which I had printed a slice of Aranmore island, a close-cropped landscape with a house in the distance with grey-white walls and the paint only there in places.

Now I understood. Arranmore is a small island just off the coast of Donegal, very close to the mainland but far enough away so that one indeed feels some slight sense of such things. I was there for a few days this summer with ML. Even then in the heights of July and August there are not many people on the island. If one walks around to the other side of the bay, away from where the small passenger ferry comes in and where the pubs are one is alone facing the Atlantic. The lights of the mainland are resolutely blocked by the cold soil of the land. There are beaches with abandoned boats and low grey skies heavy with silvery clouds. People live here, though. I walked past a school and on the wall there was a big map of Ireland. What surprised me about it was there was a big black blank hole in the top of right of the map, devoid of features and writing or place names, that’s where I come from.

Hang on St. Christopher…

I realised reading Underland that in fact I have been searching for these “thin places” like this Island for all of my life. I am not as an adventurous traveler as Mr. McFarlane, but I will bear his words in mind, I think.