The East Sider

Eyes on the Sky

Physicist and star-gazer Michael Umbricht curates the historic Ladd Observatory

Posted

Hope Street’s historic Ladd Observatory is the pride of Brown University and one of the most iconic structures on the East Side. So, when educator Michael Umbricht was offered the position of curator at the observatory 15 years ago, he knew he had found his dream job.

Umbricht was born in Chicago but arrived in the Providence area at five years old, eventually moving to the Hope Street border of Pawtucket and finally the West End, where he currently resides. He spends his weekdays on the East Side, dividing his time between Ladd and his office at the physics department on Brown’s main campus. A vegetarian, he enjoys frequenting the Indian restaurants along Hope and Thayer streets.

Before joining Ladd, Umbricht taught astronomy at Roger Williams Park’s Museum of Natural History planetarium. He became fascinated by the history of science as well as mechanics, and he is involved in the Retro-Computing Society of RI. His interests made him the perfect fit as curator of an observatory dedicated to preserving and showcasing the ways in which our ancestors (literally) viewed the heavens. Its architectural uniqueness even earned Ladd a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

“The observatory wasn’t actually built for research — it was built primarily for teaching, so it was constructed as a state-of-the-art facility,” Umbricht says. In the late 1800s, only fields surrounded Ladd. But then astronomers “started realizing that they needed to go to the top of a tall mountain above air and sea level,” and Providence’s haze and humidity weren’t great for cosmic observation. Despite its practical applications, students from Brown and other universities still use the observatory for star- and planet-gazing; Umbricht teaches roughly a handful of classes per month, but the observatory’s primary function these days is community outreach for Brown University.

Ladd’s original equipment still works. “And if it doesn’t, we repair it!” Umbricht says. For example, he recently researched information on how batteries were made to power the giant upper telescope in the days before Ladd had electricity, and led a successful attempt to recreate them. Ladd has added other items over the years, like a 1950s radio to pick up Sputnik satellite signals and telescopes dating back to the mid-1800s. On Tuesday nights, weather permitting, the observatory will usually host open houses where Umbricht will offer tours and demonstrations of the equipment — but he advises always checking ahead on the observatory’s website before visiting.

H.P. Lovecraft fans already know that the Lovecrafts were close friends with Ladd’s first astronomy professor, Winslow Upton; the horror author would spend quite a lot of time inside the observatory’s ground-floor library. “When I read through his stories and look at the dates, he’s taking things out of scientific journals from the year before the stories were published and incorporating them into his plots,” Umbricht says.