Suddenly, no giraffe!

Camelopardalis is one of those early-modern constellations of the northern sky, too dim to really pick out without a telescope, which astronomers seemed to quite literally name after the first thing that popped into their heads. This is how, for instance, we came to have the now-defunct Quadrans Muralis– named for an instrument that was doubtless hanging right there on the wall of Jerome Lalande’s observatory. Lalande also provided Globus Aerostaticus, the hot-air balloon, and from Johann Bode came several other gadgets in space: Machina Electrica, for instance, and Officina Typographica, the Printer’s Workshop.

Bode also dabbled in the other major source of early modern constellation names: blatant toadying. Thus, Frederici Honores (the Glory of Frederick the Great). I don’t want to be down on Old Fritz, as Brandenburgers still affectionately call him, but this seems like a solid case of if-you-get-one-they’ll-all-want-one; in fact, in much the same region of sky, there was also Sceptrum et Manus Iustitiae (the Sceptre and Hand of Justice), honouring King Louis XIV of France. Which is just a bit much, considering he already had the Sun. Anyway, both of those have been split up and divided among neighbouring constellations, so Frederick will just have to content himself with Bach’s Musical Offering. (Mind you, Scutum, the Shield, was originally the shield of King Jan Sobieski of Poland; but without him coffee would have taken much longer to arrive in the West, so it’s understandable that European astronomers are willing to make that exception.)

The other major naming theme, which brings us slowly back on topic, is animals. Lalande also created a cat, being a cat-lover and figuring he had done enough astronomical work he was entitled to put a cat-picture in the sky, which is a 21st-century enough sentiment. And the Fleming Petrus Plancius supplied Musca Borealis (the Northern Fly), Gallus (the Rooster), and Camelopardalis – the Giraffe, which made the cut as one of the 88 standard modern constellations. Regarding the motivation for the name, Ian Ridpath writes:

The German astronomer Jacob Bartsch included Camelopardalis on his map of 1624 and wrote that it represented the camel on which Rebecca rode into Canaan for her marriage to Isaac, as told in the book of Genesis. But Camelopardalis is a giraffe not a camel, so Bartsch’s explanation is unsatisfactory.

So I’m falling back on “Plancius was just thinking about giraffes that night” as the null hypothesis.

In general there’s not a ton going on in the area of sky subtended by Camelopardalis, although there was a supernova there recently, and Voyager 1 is headed in that general direction. In the past couple of months, though, Comet 209P/LINEAR crossed the Earth’s orbit, leaving debris in its wake; and astronomers predicted this debris would cause a new meteor shower, peaking the night of May 23rd-24th, with its radiant in Camelopardalis.

As indeed it did. They predicted, too, that the shower might be quite spectacular, and this didn’t pan out; but I would much rather that astronomers let me know that something might be an impressive sight, rather than that they play it safe and leave me slug-a-bed while the show of a lifetime plays out in the heavens. In the worst case I have gone out and enjoyed the company of the night sky.

And, in fact, that was what happened; I spent about twenty minutes watching, and no meteors, but it was a decent night’s stargazing all the same. Those with more patience and/or kit did see a few, evidently.


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