Posted by: Rob Viens | February 18, 2012

A New Sky

I think that crossing into the southern hemisphere made it all sink in for Darwin. On February 18th he was rather reflective, writing:

“In August quietly wandering about Wales, in February in a different hemisphere; nothing ever in this life ought to surprise me.” (Feb 18)

Interesting statement from a man who had some big surprises stored up for the world.

What I think makes him realize that he is really far away from home is the night sky – which would have looked very different than anything he had ever seen in his 22 years in England. He exclaims:

“At last I certainly am in the Southern hemisphere, & whilst enjoying the cool air of the evening, I can gaze at the Southern Cross, Magellans cloud & the great crown of the South.” (Feb 18)

Considering the lack of light pollution in the 1830’s and the fact that he was in the middle of the ocean, the sky must have been unbelievably spectacular. I picture Darwin, night after night, standing on the deck of the ship looking up and contemplating the universe.  You can get a little feel of the southern sky by watching the following time lapse video of from the ALMA Array Operations Site (AOS) (part of the European Southern Observatory).  The video starts with the center of the Milky Way above the telescopes and as it rotates through the night the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds rise in the center of the image. (The ESO has a number of these time lapse videos on its web site.)

The Magellanic Clouds are nearby galaxies, part of our local group of galaxies, and located about 150,000-200,000 light years from the Milky Way.  They form two small “clouds” that are distinct features in the southern sky (some of the farthest things you can clearly see without a telescope).  They would have been completely new to Darwin. I wonder what he thought of them as he gazed at them night after night in the dark skies of the 1830’s. What would he have said if he had known that they were 2 million trillion kilometers away. Would he even have been able to wrap his head around the idea that they contained large gaseous nebula were new stars were being born? One can only wonder.

Large Magellanic Cloud (1986, ESO):

The other two features Darwin refers to are constellations.  Crux, or the Southern Cross, is one of the most well known constellations in the southern sky. It is visible year round and, because of its significance,  has been adopted as a symbol for the flags of many southern nations. The Southern Crown, knows as Corona Australis, is formed of a C-shaped arc of stars shaped like a crown.

Crux (from Wikipedia commons)

Corona Australis region, including a large dust cloud (from EOS):

Makes me want to go stargazing tonight.  Alas, it’s the rainy season here in the Pacific Northwest. (RJV)


  1. But he hadn’t just stayed in England… You mentioned the exotic homeland of my forebears… 🙂

    Let’s go stargazing ❤

  2. […] today discusses the beauty of the southern sky – a topic that Darwin reflects on frequently (see A New Sky): “At night in these fine regions of the Tropics there is one certain & never failing […]

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