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Ladd’s timekeepers to come back to life

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Clarification appended.

Watched the skies lately to set your watch? If you find some time to head over to Ladd Observatory, it’ll soon be possible to set your clock by the stars with the observatory’s timekeeping system.

In December, the observatory received a $46,970 grant from the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission to update the system, which hasn’t operated since the 1960s. The University and anonymous private donors matched the grant, bringing the total to about $100,000, said the observatory’s director, Adjunct Associate Professor of Physics David Targan.

The money will fund the restoration of Ladd Observatory’s timekeeping facilities, which were built in 1891. Targan estimated it would take a year to a year and a half to complete the restoration.

Many observatories kept time before it became a function of the federal government, said Targan, also associate dean of the College for science education. When the nation moved from an agrarian lifestyle to an industrially based economy, keeping exact time became more vital. Train accidents occurred in the 1800s because the conductors’ watches were on different times, Targan said.

Since then, new technology such as computers and navigation systems have made precise timekeeping even more important. The science of timekeeping has kept up with the technology, Targan said.

Ladd’s two telescopes are less advanced than the atomic clock at the National Institute of Science and Technology in Boulder, Colo., which sets the international standard for time, but they still allow people to learn about the science and history behind timekeeping.

“We lose track of how we determine time in the first place,” Targan said. “When people look at their watches, what does that mean and what does that come from?”

With the restoration, Targan hopes to educate the public and answer those questions.

So, where do clocks get their time?

“The Earth itself is the most reliable timepiece we have,” astronomy concentrator David Eichhorn ’09 said.

Astronomers use the rotational period of the earth to keep time. “By looking at the stars entering above, you can time those stars as they cross key imaginary lines across the sky,” Targan said.

In Ladd Observatory’s transit room, an observer can press a key that makes an extra mark on the chronometer, which is already marked to show when certain stars move across the sky. By measuring the difference between the marks, an observer can calibrate clocks accordingly, Eichhorn said.

Fixing this telegraph system is one of the many repairs planned, Targan said.

Sarah Zurier, special projects coordinator at the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, which awarded the grant, listed other intended tasks including fixing slits in the roof that provide the telescope with a view of the sky, repairing windows and upgrading the electrical system.

Zurier cited the observatory’s history of serving the public as one of the reasons for its selection for the grant.

After the restoration’s completion, the timekeeping facilities will also be open to the public on Tuesday nights, when the observatory is currently open. They will also be available to school groups from Providence and astronomy courses at Brown, Targan said.

A photo caption in Wednesday’s Herald (“Ladd’s timekeepers to come back to life,” Jan. 24) stated that the Ladd Observatory will receive a new timekeeping system. In fact, the observatory’s existing timekeeping system will be restored.

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