Sand and Stars

Fornax and Antoine Lavoisier



Fornax as Lacaille depicted it on his 1756 planisphere (still with its Frecvh name)

14 Dec 2017

Were Fornax a vapid movie star rather than a constellation, I suspect it might make the same off-beam statement that movie stars make when they want to set some story straight in the press: “It’s an incorrect fact about me, and it’s all over the place”.

Fornax’s incorrect fact that is all over the place concerns the origin of its name. As we all know, the constellation was introduced by the French astronomer, Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, after his trip to the Cape of Good Hope to observe the southern stars in 1751–52. Lacaille originally called it Le Fourneau on his 1756 planisphere and depicted it as a chemist’s furnace used for distillation (as you can see, it consisted of a retort [a flask with a long neck] in which chemicals were heated over a fire, and a receiver to collect the products). The constellation’s name was Latinized to Fornax Chimiae on the second edition of Lacaille’s planisphere that was published in 1763 in Coelum Australe Stelliferum.

Thus far… correct facts. Then comes the incorrect fact that one sees all over the place – “Lacaille named this constellation in honour of his good friend Antoine Lavoisier, a French scientist and the father of modern chemistry”.

Not so.

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier was born in 1743, and thus was only 13 years old when Lacaille’s chart of the southern constellations was first published. And indeed was only 19 years old when Lacaille’s short life ended in 1762.

In actual fact, Lavoisier’s connection was due to Johann Bode who reinvented the constellation nearly half a century later in his Uranographia atlas of 1801. Bode based his depiction of Fornax on Lavoisier’s diagram of his experiment to decompose water into its constituents of hydrogen and oxygen, as published in Traité élémentaire de chimie (Elements of Chemistry, 1789). As part of his reinvention, Bode also renamed the constellation Apparatus Chemicus, although most astronomers continued to use Lacaille’s original name. (In 1845 the English astronomer Francis Baily shortened its name to Fornax in his British Association Catalogue, acting on a suggestion by John Herschel that all Lacaille’s two-word names for constellations should be reduced to one. It has been known as Fornax ever since.)


On the left is a double page of illustrations from Lavoisier’s Traité élémentaire de chimie, published in 1789, and often named as the first modern chemical textbook, depicting his experiment. On Chart XVII of his 1801 Uranographia (right), Johann Bode depicted Fornax as Antoine Lavoisier’s experiment to decompose water into hydrogen and oxygen, and renamed it Apparatus Chemicus

 A more worthy scientist couldn’t have been honoured with a constellation paying tribute to his extraordinary accomplishments (even if it did come about in a somewhat second-hand fashion), for Lavoisier revolutionised chemistry.

Statue of Antoine Lavoisier at the Louvre
Statue of Antoine Lavoisier at the Louvre

He established the law of conservation of mass; determined that combustion and respiration are caused by chemical reactions with what he named “oxygen”; helped systematize chemical nomenclature; wrote the first modern textbook on chemistry, along with the French mathematician Pierre Simon de Laplace, he established that water was a compound and not an element; he discovered that sulfur is an element and that diamond is a form of carbon; among a host of other accomplishments.

Lavoisier was the son of a wealthy Parisian lawyer, and completed a law degree in accordance with family wishes. His real interest, however, was in science, which he pursued with passion while leading a full public life. On the basis of his earliest scientific work, mostly in geology, he was elected in 1768 – at the early age of 25 – to the Academy of Sciences, France’s most elite scientific society. A political and social liberal, Lavoisier took an active part in the events leading to the French Revolution, and in its early years he drew up plans and reports advocating many reforms, including the establishment of the metric system of weights and measures. Despite his eminence and his services to science and France, he came under attack as a former farmer-general of taxes and was guillotined in 1794.

How wonderful of Bode to have written this brilliant scientist’s name in the stars!

I have included observations of two of my favourite Fornax objects.




16″ f4.5 Dobs; 130x, 228x and 333x

NGC 1360 Planetary Nebula

RA 03 33 15.4   Dec -25 52 13   Mag 9.4   Size 11.0′ × 7.5′   Mag cent * 11.3

NGC 1360. Image credit Hubble

NGC 1360 is spectacular! A conspicuous central star surrounded by a huge, and very delicately greenish-blue egg-shaped shell. It lies oriented NNE-SSW. The OIII filter significantly increases the contrast and allows this unusual planetary to give up a wealth of subtle detail. The whole nebula appears very delicately mottled, although the northern portion is noticeably brighter than the southern portion, and there is a small and subtly brighter patch directly northeast of the mag 11.3 central star.

With averted vision, the centre of the nebula appears to be very slightly darker, a very vague round and narrow shadowy-ness around the central star – but to be frank, the central star is a real beauty and pretty bright in all that mistiness, so perhaps all I am seeing is a contrast illusion. However, there is a definite but subtly darker lane extending towards the southeast from the (maybe) shadowy central area, but it fades rapidly into the faint mistiness of the southern portion of the nebula. There are nice sharp boundaries on the NE and SW sides, the rest of its boundaries appear indefinite and simply melt into the surrounding sky. It really is a beautiful planetary nebula!

NGC 1049 Globular Cluster

RA 02 39 48.0   Dec -34 15 24   Mag 12.6   Size 0.8′

NGC 1049 (left); Fornax Dwarf Galaxy (right) – you can see NGC 1049 lying to its north.. Image credit Hubble/ESA

This has to rank as one of my more peculiar observations… seeing a tiny globular cluster that resides in a galaxy 630,000 light years distant… while the galaxy itself stayed resolutely invisible to my eyes. The globular appears as a small, faint haze with a very bright, stellar core. Looking at that tiny droplet of light from so far away, I know that its parent galaxy, the Fornax Dwarf Galaxy, extends to the SW but alas, the most careful search revealed not so as much as the mistiest hint of  this large, very faint peculiar galaxy.   

Copyright © 2017 Susan Young