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MARGINALIA

Six Months in Ascension

Thanks in part to his intrepid wife, David Gill made the observations that metered the 19th-century solar system

J. Donald Fernie

The Post Office and Philatelic Bureau of Ascension Island...Click to Enlarge Image

Nearly fifty years ago my wife and I joined a handful of passengers aboard a freighter out of New York bound for Cape Town, South Africa. Our first landfall was a small island, only seven or eight miles at its widest, that lies about eight degrees south of the equator and halfway between South America and Africa. The island of Ascension was a welcome sight—but not a pretty one. Even its official Web site describes the island's surface, covered by old basalt flows and cinder cones, as "rugged, dry, barren, and inhospitable."

Our ship anchored off Georgetown, the tiny, lone settlement, to offload cargo. We passengers didn't go ashore, as the only way to gain the headland was to leap from the gunwales of a small tender onto the steep, slippery steps cut into the rock. When the swell was heavy it became too dangerous. Later we sailed down the southwest coast and gaped at the forbidding cliffs of ancient lava. Suddenly there appeared between the gray-black rocks a small beach with brilliant white sand, a sight that caused a stir among the passengers at the deck rails. "That's Mars Bay," announced a nearby ship's officer, and suddenly I realized: This was the place where a young astronomer made the best 19th-century estimate of the solar system's size!




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