You Had to Ask.

I recently happened upon a city council resolution from 1903 thanking a scientist for naming a planet "Pittsburghia." Where is the planet Pittsburghia and what's transpired there since 1903? -- Zachary Falck, Shadyside

One of thousands of asteroids or "minor planets" in orbit between Mars and Jupiter, Pittsburghia is a fairly unexciting place. Less than 50 miles across, invisible to all but the most committed astronomer, it is a lifeless rock without even one major league sports team. (That's probably how it got to be a minor planet in the first place.)

But it's still an interesting story in naming rights.

One of Pittsburgh's oft-forgotten heroes was John Brashear, a South Sider who parlayed a life-long love of astronomy into an internationally respected business building telescopes and other measuring instruments. At the turn of the century, Brashear's state-of-the-art equipment was in observatories in Asia, Europe, and all over the United States.

Among Brashear's more successful designs was the "photographic doublet," which used two cameras to photograph the sky and was far more sensitive than previous telescopic cameras. That sensitivity made it possible to pick out asteroids just a few miles across from hundreds of millions of miles away. Using Brashear's devices, Dr. Max Wolf of Heidelberg, Germany, discovered hundreds of asteroids, and in honor the man whose equipment made those discoveries possible, Wolf offered to name two of his asteroids after Brashear and his late wife, Phoebe.

Unfortunately, one of Jupiter's moons was already named Phoebe, and Brashear, with characteristic modesty, declined the honor. (Assuming it's an "honor" to be memorialized with a lifeless world in the middle of nowhere. You'd have to ask the guy Harrisburg was named after.) So in 1903, Wolf decided to name the two planets after Brashear's hometown and its sister city of Allegheny. As Brashear biographers Harriet Gaul and Ruby Eiseman aptly put it, the asteroids now known as Pittsburghia and Alleghenia "remain an eternal memorial to the man whose genius devised a way for other men to find them." In fact, the names outlasted not just Brashear, who died in 1920, but Allegheny City itself, which was annexed by Pittsburgh in 1907.

According to Mike Weinstein, a graduate student at Penn State's Astronomy and Astrophysics department, Pittsburghia is about 150 million miles from Earth, while Alleghenia is nearly 200 million miles away. You can find Pittsburghia in the constellation Aquarius, while Alleghenia is currently drifting through the constellation Taurus. Weinstein promises that neither of these asteroids ever come close to earth, so there's no chance of either causing a cataclysmic summer blockbuster movie.

In fact, Alleghenia is so far away and so tiny (half the size of Pittsburghia) that it can't be seen without a professional grade telescope, and while Pittsburghia would just barely be visible from a large amateur telescope, Weinstein says "it would only look like a feeble point of light."

But those viewing the sky with a naked eye can see a similar phenomenon, just by looking at Downtown Pittsburgh on a clear night. That will change of course, when we knock down a bunch of historic buildings to bring the Nordstrom department stores all the major planets have, creating the "retail fusion" necessary to light up the city at night like a white-hot sun. Too bad that will prevent astronomers from seeing Pittsburghia at all -- and anybody else from recognizing the city it's named for.

-- Chris Potter
© 1999 Pittsburgh City Paper. All rights reserved.