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Fighting Providence fog, stars shine in historic lens

"You're looking at the past," said one visitor at Ladd Observatory last Tuesday night, staring up at the cerulean blue telescope that has inhabited the main observation room since 1891.

The visitor meant that light reaching earth from great distances could have been emitted by a star that no longer exists, but the statement could easily be reinterpreted at this historic site.

A multitude of eyes have peered through the 15-foot telescope in the past 120 years, including those of H.P. Lovecraft — who had his own key to the observatory — local teachers, students and professors. Firemen periodically park their bright red engines at the intersection of Hope and Doyle streets and come in to take a peek at the night sky.

The telescope can track one object — a galaxy, for example — for months at a time through the use of a carefully calibrated, hand-wound mechanical clock drive that moves to counter slight shifts in the earth's movements. From this room, it is possible to see the shadows of the moons of Jupiter cross its surface and watch stars brighten and dim as they pulsate and eclipse each other, said David Targan '78, associate dean of the College for science education.

Excepting light bulbs, exit signs and alarms, the building was never modernized, making it one of few observatories still existing in its original condition. Many like it began to operate on electricity in the 1930s, while others have fallen into disrepair and a few remain in private hands. It was one of the last observatories to be built in an urban area, before light pollution and smog became obstacles to late-night viewing. Its proximity to Providence was necessary for the role it once fulfilled as a time-keeping station for Rhode Island.

"Ultimately, we are calibrating our clocks to the rotation of the earth, which we calculate by observing individual stars," said Targan.

The observatory was once in charge of such calculations. It transmitted pulses along telegraph wires every hour to City Hall so residents could set their clocks, and to the Jewelry District, where clocks were repaired.

 Michael Umbricht, observatory curator and science history buff, has been working at Ladd for about six years. A sleek ponytail streaked with gray falls down the back of his worn leather jacket. A long earring dangles from one ear.

He takes hold of a crank in the main observation room, and the wooden black dome creaks and groans as the roof spins above us.         

The observatory is run manually, thanks to a system of pulleys and counterweights, and sections of the roof can be lifted to afford a better view when the night is clear.

Umbricht led visitors into a second observation room — recently restored by a grant from the state. The effect was akin to walking back two centuries. The scent of cedar filled the air and archaic equipment dotted the room: several small telescopes, a grandfather clock, an instrument resembling a polygraph and a large roll of paper with scribbling inked needles to measure the position of stars. The team is working hard to restore the observatory authentically — even the paint on the walls matches the original 19th century colors.

While the observatory is no longer used for research — a modern telescope on top of Barus and Holley has taken over that niche — it continues to serve an educational purpose.

The observatory receives about 3,000 visitors a year, Targan said.  Students in University astronomy classes visit once or twice a semester, and local Providence teachers can attend special overnight workshops to learn about the stars. Scholars of scientific history consider the observatory to be a "prime field trip," Targan said — it is open to the public every Tuesday when the weather is clear.

The staff aims to coordinate events once a month that are less weather-dependent, such as last week's talk by Ian Dell'Antonio, associate professor of physics. They will be open on the upcoming Halloween Monday for a costumed celebration where all are welcome, Umbricht said.

Visitors stayed over half an hour after Dell'Antonio's talk had concluded, climbing on ladders and peeking through the telescope despite the dome being closed due to cloudy skies. Though they could not have seen much farther than the ceiling, the amateur astronomers demonstrated their innate fascination with the universe through a persistent barrage of questions, all of which were fielded with expertise by the staff.

"We are made of elements that were formed inside of stars," Targan said. "We are now at a point … where a piece of the universe — you and me — can reflect upon itself and make predictions and have an understanding of what is going on."

 "No matter what happens down here, what happened at the office that day or in school," he said, "You can go out there and get the big perspective. It's a big universe out there. We're part of it, but there's a lot more to it than us."


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