Felis the Cat

Once upon a time there was a constellation called Felis, the cat. What happens to a constellation when it dies? It’s already up among the stars, so where else can it go? Does a constellation only exist if it’s on a map? There is our definition of a constellation: a drawing on a piece of paper, or a figment of the collective imagination. You don’t have your own personal constellations, you follow faithfully the 88 prescribed by the International Astronomical Union. The IAU are in charge of the names of everything in the sky. We gave them that power. It’s safer to have a governing body in charge of the naming of things.

Jerome Lalande

Joseph Jerome Lalande

Felis was invented in 1799 by Joseph Jerome Lalande, a French astronomer and lover of cats. The illustration of Felis that appeared in Bode’s Uranographia in 1801 (pictured below) bears a striking resemblance to Lalande. I think this might give us a clue as to where the cat went when he was removed from the heavens. Or what happened to Lalande when he died in 1807.

the cat constellation

There’s no myth behind the cat. This is just a cat for cat’s sake. She digs her claws into Draco’s tail. She laps up the Milky Way and then vomits it into Libra’s scales.

Where I live, the streetlights are too loud to see anything at night. They fill the air with a cicada-like buzzing. Sometimes, in the neighborhoods to the west where the lights are dimmer and farther spaced, I can see a few pieces of constellations — Orion’s belt, a fragment of the big dipper***not a constellation but an asterism*** — but mostly the sky is covered at night with dull orange clouds. That there are any constellations left at all we have to take on the word of the IAU.

But maybe you live in the countryside, where it’s always dark. The stars are still there, and you can peer through the figures of dragons and warriors that crowd the night sky to see what remains of the cat, his skeleton, a few faint stars. (I’m going there this weekend, I’ll let you know.)

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