Johannes Hevelius, the Polish astronomer who introduced this constellation in 1687, continued to measure star positions with the naked eye long after other astronomers had adopted telescopic sights. The French astronomer Pierre Gassendi wrote that Hevelius had the ‘eyes of a lynx’ and this constellation can be seen as an attempt to demonstrate that. Indeed, Hevelius wrote in his Prodromus Astronomiae that anyone who wanted to observe it would need the eyesight of a lynx (“oculos habeat Lynceos”), although he undoubtedly exaggerated the faintness of the stars he catalogued, typically by a full magnitude.
Lynx fills a blank area of sky between Ursa Major and Auriga that is surprisingly large – greater in area than Gemini, for example – but apart from one third-magnitude star (Alpha Lyncis) it contains no stars brighter than fourth magnitude. Several of its stars had been listed by Ptolemy in his Almagest as lying among what he termed the ”unformed” stars outside Ursa Major. Earlier in the 17th century, the Dutch astronomer Petrus Plancius had made these stars part of his new constellation Jordanus, the river Jordan, but it was Hevelius’s alternative creation that endured.
Lynx as shown on the Uranographia of Johann Bode (1801). For Hevelius’s version of Lynx, click here.
On his star atlas Firmamentum Sobiescianum Hevelius called the constellation Lynx, and in the accompanying star catalogue it is listed as “Lynx, sive Tigris” (Lynx or Tiger). However, the illustration he presented does not look much like either animal.
It is not known whether Hevelius had in mind the mythological character Lynceus who enjoyed the keenest eyesight in the world – he was even credited with the ability to see things underground. Lynceus and his twin brother Idas sailed with the Argonauts. The pair came to grief when they fell out with those other mythical twins, Castor and Polydeuces (see Gemini).
Alpha Lyncis, 38 Lyncis and two other unnumbered stars formed the northern part of the Chinese constellation Xuanyuan, the Yellow Emperor or Yellow Dragon, which extended into Lynx from Leo. But this area of sky is so blank that even the Chinese, with their fondness for faint constellations, imagined nothing else here.
© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved