Before the invention of the telescope, the limited grasp of the human eye fixed the number of stars. The ancients played connect the dots with some of the brighter stars, and the constellations were born.
The ancients based their constellations on star patterns and not sections of the sky, as we do today. As a result, our forebears ignored entire patches of sky. Some stars were too faint to be bothered with.
The invention of the telescope in the early 17th century changed all that. Suddenly, the fainter stars exploded to brilliance and beauty when viewed through the big glass eyes.
Astronomers scrambled to come up with names for the more obscure star groupings, and they had little shame about naming them for wealthy or powerful people they thought might do them some good.
A case in point is the constellation we now call Lacerta, the Lizard. You can see it (sort of) by looking high in the WNW right after dark if you happen to be observing from dark, rural skies. The constellation is sandwiched between Cepheus to the north and a small triangle of stars that make up the southwest side of Pegasus.
The brighter stars in the Lacerta look vaguely lizard-like — a zigzag of stars at the edge of visibility. Most modern stargazers see a “W” shape in the stars. I’ve heard it referred to as “Little Cassiopeia,” the brighter stars of which form a rough “W.”
French astronomer Augustin Royer first named the stars in the area in 1679. He borrowed some stars from nearby constellations and called the whole mess, rather effusively, the “Scepter and the Hand of Justice” in honor of King Louis XIV of France. Royer knew what side of the bread HIS butter was on.
In 1687, Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius came up with his own ornately illustrated star map. At first, he called the constellation “Stellio” after a European newt with star-like spots. At some point, he changed the name to Lacerta. Perhaps he was inspired by the Chinese designation of the stars, “T’ang Chen,” the Awakening Serpent, or sometimes “xiē hǔ zuò,” the “lizard constellation.
The Chinese name makes the most sense. The stars resemble a slithering snake more than they look like, say, King Frederick the Great of Prussia.
I didn’t pick that last name out of a hat. A century after Royer’s first designation, the name and stars of the constellation were still under dispute. German astronomer Johann Bode named the constellation “Honores Frederici” in honor of the aforementioned king.
Bode’s description of the constellation reaches new heights of astronomical ingratiation: “Below a nimbus, the sign of Royal dignity, hang wreathed with imperishable laurel of fame, a sword, pen, and olive branch to distinguish this ever-to-be-remembered monarch as hero, sage, and peace-maker.”
The “imperishable laurel of fame” perished quickly, but the Lizard stuck.
By strange coincidence, another fully developed set of myths also identified the stars in the area as a lizard. Hevelius could not have known about the creation story of the Chumash people, who lived in what we now call southern California and the Channel Islands.
In their version of the lizard story, a great flood wiped out virtually all the animals and people of the Earth. Only Spotted Woodpecker survived because it perched on a high branch of the world’s tallest tree.
After the waters subsided, the sky gods met to create a new race of people. The meeting consisted of the Sun God, Morning Star (almost certainly the planet Venus), the Moon, and Slo’w, the Great Eagle. The Lizard was there as well, but it spoke not a word.
However, they quarreled about the form the new people would take. A particular point of contention was the human hand. Sky Coyote wanted our hands to look like his perfect paw, but Great Eagle vociferously disagreed.
The Coyote was far more cunning than the rest, so his point of view prevailed in the end. To seal the arrangement, the gods met the following day at a beautiful white rock. As the Sky Coyote leaned forward to place the impression of his paw in the rock, Lizard sprang in front of him and pressed its paw in the rock instead.
Angered, Coyote chased the Lizard, but it escaped. We see the Lizard in the constellation Lacerta, but a single star represents Sky Coyote. We call that star Polaris, the North Star.
The Chumash people called both him and the star Shnilemun, the “Star that Never Moves.” Perhaps he sits silently and unmoving as he waits for the Lizard or some other prey to happen by.
Beyond the Chumash story, Lacerta has little to show for itself. Ask a typical amateur to identify the constellation in the sky, and you’ll most likely get a blank stare.
The constellation has only one named star. Taika is too faint to be seen without a large telescope. Its claim to fame is that it is the only star in the constellation with a discovered planet. The planet, dubbed HAT P-1, is about the size of Jupiter.
There the comparison ends. Hat P-1 is extraordinarily lightweight with a density equal to a Jupiter-sized cork.
Also of note is a star-like object called BL Lacertae, which fades from faint to very faint and back again in a few days.
BL Lac was discovered by German astronomer Cuno Hoffmeister in 1929. At first, astronomers thought it was in our Milky Way galaxy — a simple star that varied in brightness. Such variable stars are common as dirt in the Milky Way.
However, in 1968 astronomer John Schmitt discovered the faint traces of a galaxy around the “star.” As it turns out, BL Lac is a quasar, the extraordinarily bright and active core of a galaxy 900 million light-years away from the Milky Way.
The only object worth observing in an amateur telescope is NGC 7243, a faint open cluster of stars about 2,500 light-years from Earth. Look at it in an amateur telescope, and you’ll see a couple of dozen faint stars if your telescope is large enough.
The eighteenth-century chaos of constellation naming didn’t stop other astronomers from creating new constellations and renaming old ones, a process that continued into the twentieth century.
Of these “new” constellations, the less said, the better. Go out, intrepid stargazers, and witness the glory of Musca Borealis, the Northern Fly. Immerse yourself in the wonder of Turdus Solitarius, a name I don’t even want to think about, let alone translate.
Okay, I can’t help myself. Turdus Solitarius is Latin for “solitary thrush.”
In 1776, French astronomer Pierre Charles Lemonnier constructed it out of stars in the constellation Hydra’s tail. He named it after the Rodrigues solitaire, a now-extinct flightless bird found only on the island of Rodrigues, which is east of Madagascar.
In 1822, British amateur astronomer Alexander Jamieson replaced the flightless bird with Noctua, the Owl. Eventually, the Hydra got its tail back because nobody uses either constellation name anymore.
Astronomers had to do something before the Turdus Solitarius hit the fan. Nomenclatural chaos reigns if anybody can name anything they want.
Thus, in 1932, the International Astronomical Union got together and fixed the constellations at 88 sky patches of sky covering the entire northern and southern hemispheres. The stars are set in the heavens at last — or until the International Astronomical Union changes its mind the way it did with Pluto in 2006.
Too bad. In my own best interest, I might, for example, rename some constellation “Susan, the Long-Suffering Wife of the Stargazer Who is Always Out Showing Some Third Graders the Stars Instead of Staying Home Nights Like a Normal Person.”
But that’s another subject for another day.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.