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December 18, 2017

A constellation with connections to both scientific advancement and the horrors of war and revolution scoots low across the southern sky tonight.

Fornax rises in the southeast shortly after nightfall. It’s not much to look at; its three brightest stars form a wedge that aims toward the south. In fact, it’s so feeble and so far south that it wasn’t drawn until the mid-1700s.

Fornax was one of 14 constellations created by French astronomer Nicolas Louis de la Caille, after a trip to South Africa. All of them are so far south that they were barely visible or not visible from Europe.

La Caille named this constellation for a chemical furnace, in honor of fellow scientist Antoine Lavoisier. Lavoisier had developed accurate descriptions of how things burn and how chemical reactions take place.

Among other things, Lavoisier used his knowledge to develop gunpowder for the French government. One of his employees later emigrated to the newly formed United States, where he founded the DuPont company. One of his first jobs was developing gunpowder for the American government.

Lavoisier also worked with an agency that collected taxes. After the French Revolution, that wasn’t a popular group of folks. Many of them were guillotined — including Lavoisier.

So the patchwork quilt that forms the constellations tells some interesting stories about our legends and our history — but some of them have unhappy endings.

More about Fornax tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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