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Near the South Celestial Pole lie the constellations of Apus, the Bird of Paradise, and Musca, the Fly. Both originated from observations of the southern sky by explorers Pieter Keyser and Frederick de Houtman on the first Dutch trading expedition to the East Indies from 1595-7.

The new constellations first appeared on a celestial globe by Petrus Plancius in 1598, with the bird of paradise labeled “Apis Indica” (Latin for “bee of the Indies”), likely intended to be “Avis Indica” (“bird of the Indies”), but the fly unlabeled.

In his 1603 celestial atlas “Uranometria,” German astronomer Johann Bayer furthered the confusion, calling the bird of paradise “Apis Indica” and neighboring Musca “Apis” (transforming the fly into a bee). Rather than correct the error, Johannes Kepler (of planetary motion laws fame) changed Apis to Apus (from Greek for “lacking feet,” the consequence of Magellan’s surviving crew having returned home in 1522 carrying specimens with feet and wings removed — Bayer’s maps depict the bird with neither).

French astronomer Nicolas Lacaille’s 1756 southern sky planisphere returned the bee to its roots as Musca Australis (“southern fly”) to distinguish it from the northern fly “Musca Borealis,” perched on the hindquarters of Aries, the Ram, itself a Plancius invention (“Apes,” the bees, pronounced “AY-peez”). Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius changed Apes back to a fly in 1690, but it was ultimately discarded altogether (after which Musca Australis became simply “Musca”). All these bee-to-fly changes may have been an effort to eliminate the confusion between “Apus, “Apis,” and “Apes.”

To see the constellations that ultimately survived all these twists and turns (the now-official Apus and Musca) requires overcoming two challenges: neither is terribly large or bright, and you must be at least as far south as Panama to see them in their entirety.

Next column: Astronomical misnomers.

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Chris Anderson manages the College of Southern Idaho’s Centennial Observatory in Twin Falls. He can be reached at 208-732-6663 or canderson@csi.edu.

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