my latest post on the Transit of Venus Project blog
Out of the Diaries: 24 February 1761
After Pingré’s lucky escape from the British in January, his voyage to the island of Rodrigues became relatively uneventful. Occasionally he saw enemy vessels in the distance, but they always managed to avoid a fight. Pingré enjoyed the music and dancing of the sailors which had turned the whole ship into ‘a grand ballroom’. With each day merging into the next without anything happening, monotonous ennui took hold of Pingré. He ate, observed the night sky and fished. There were not enough books, too much noise and no space to walk. Only occasionally were these days interrupted by something new. One morning, for example, Pingré discovered that according to their charts they had sailed across land at the Cape Verde islands and joked with the crew that the Comte d’Argenson was ‘such an excellent vessel that it could split land and rocks with the same ease as the waves of the ocean’. They saw flying fish, sometimes the sea seemed to be ‘on fire’ with phosphorescence, and once a sailor had to be rescued from the ocean after a fall from the mizzen-mast. The most memorable day was their equator crossing, on 24 February 1761. The old sailors prepared the ‘equator baptism’ for days, dressing up as the so-called ‘le père la Ligne’ – the ‘father of the Equator’ – and practised pranks that they could play on those who had never crossed the line before. There were drums and singing and much to drink.
And though the ‘ceremony’ and the jokes were silly, there was something majestic about this moment, especially for an astronomer. Once they had sailed across the equatorial line, they entered the southern hemisphere with a sky that displayed a glittering dome of stars that Pingré had never seen before. The astronomer who had previously said that ‘liquor gives us the necessary strength to measure the distance between the sun and the moon’ began to regard his observations more seriously, now taking his measurements ‘not with the bottle, but with the octant.’