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.

One thought on “Olivier Le Fèvre

  1. What a wonderful way to start my Holiday weekend with your missive. I can feel your medical issues I had in last year and Half a blocked right leg femoral artery and then Vietnam Agent Orange related ischemic heart attack had 3 stents march 30. This is first week end along w this COVID virus that the wife and I left our home and now at camp for four days. Sorry about your and the professor problems, please you. And your family stay safe and healthy and again thanks again for a wonderful read.

Leave a Reply to John Wilson Cancel reply

%d bloggers like this: