Deeper into Jeopardy! XL: Zodiac Constellations – $800

Jeopardy! category: ZODIAC CONSTELLATIONS (12-3-2015)

$800 clue: This constellation is where you’ll find the sun as spring begins in the Northern Hemisphere

Correct response

The gist: Although on your typical horoscope page they’re going after each others’ tail, in the sky they’re tied together with rope. Pisces (February 19-March 20), the two fish, were identified by the Greeks as representations of love goddess Aphrodite and her son Eros, who escaped the rampaging monster Typhon by diving into the sea and changing into fish. So that they wouldn’t lose one another, they also tied their tails together. It’s a good thing they did, too, because in the sky they’re swimming pretty much perpendicular to one another, so they’d get lost fast if they were untethered. Before the Greeks, various Babylonian records call the same stars both “The Great Swallow” and “the fish cord.” You’ll have to find a way to ask them why a swallow needs a fish cord.

The constellation has 18 stars, many of which are named for either the rope (or cord, or thread) or the part of either the northern or southern fish they represent. The brighest is η (Eta) Piscium, in the middle of the northern bit of rope. It also contains Messier 74, a large spiral galaxy that happens to face Earth “head-on,” letting us take pretty spectacular pictures of it – odds are pretty good that when you imagine a galaxy, you’re imagining that one. As the clue says in less technical language, it also contains the vernal equinox, meaning that during sunrise on the spring day when day and night are approximately the same length, the sun rises up into Pisces’ bit of the sky. Because the position of the stars at specific times of year changes as time goes on, Pisces has only had the equinox since 67 BCE when it left Aries, and will lose it to Aquarius in 2597.

The constellation Pisces. Note the ecliptic – the plane cut by the equator across the sky – that cuts through it, which marks the equinox when the sun passes it in the spring

The clue: The key here is twofold: first, realize that the writers are mentioning the spring equinox (around March 20 or so) because it’s important, and then know which sign includes that time of year. That’s not exactly common astronomy knowledge, and definitely tough to figure out on the spot, which helps explain why this one was a Triple Stumper, with contestant Kristin guessing Taurus, which I suppose is as good a guess as any of the eleven incorrect possibilities. I’m surprised to see this as an $800 clue.

In Jeopardy!: Our friendly fish appear in 30 clues in the J!Archive, 15 of which mention the word “fish” specifically, plus water in five. Most of the rest are just about people who happen to be born as Pisces – one that, somewhat oddly, appears twice is Handel, whose composition Water Music fits nicely with a Pisces-themed category. It’s also the last sign of the Zodiac, but that’s only mentioned once. The fish, like Sagitarrius’ centaur, is the most important thing here, a pattern I suspect will prevail in this installment of DiJ!. (Did I just coin my own blog’s acronym? I think I did.)

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