Nighttime sky showing the Milky Way behind the Southern African Large telescope in Sutherland, South Africa

“The darkest skies I have ever seen are in Sutherland [South Africa],” says UW astronomy professor Eric Wilcots. “You can trace the Milky Way all the way to the horizon.” Jeff Miller

UW–Madison researchers in South Africa are at the heart of work that is unraveling the mysteries of the universe, determining when and how life on Earth began, and identifying the origins of humankind. A team from University Communications — videographer Justin Bomberg ’94, photographer Jeff Miller, and science writer Kelly April Tyrrell MS’11 — traveled to Johannesburg to capture those stories in words and images that now appear in a vivid project published at The journey begins at one of the world’s largest optical telescopes, which gazes into the dark skies over Sutherland, South Africa (pictured above), to help astronomers understand how planets, stars, and galaxies form and behave. It continues with geoscientists looking at rocks to find the earliest signs of life on Earth. And it concludes with a closer look at anthropologists who have unearthed some of our earliest known human ancestors. The takeaway: the beginning can be the most captivating part of a story.


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