The Ladd Observatory *An Interview with Curator and Astronomer Michael Umbricht*

Today I have the pleasure of introducing you to Astronomer, Historian of Science, and Curator of the Ladd Observatory, Michael Umbricht!

As a lover of history and astronomy, the Ladd Observatory is hands-down one of my favorite places in Providence. It is run by Brown University and is open to the public! Every Tuesday (weather permitting) at 8:30-10:00PM you can go gaze at the moon, stars, or planets with some really phenomenal telescopes — new and old. Not only that, but you can enjoy their beautiful historic objects and architecture. Go check it out — you won’t regret it.

Without further adieu, ladies and gents, I introduce to you: Michael Umbritcht!

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what is the Ladd Observatory?

The Observatory opened in 1891 and is part of the Department of Physics at the Brown University. Today it is preserved as a working museum where visitors can experience astronomy as it was practiced a century ago.*

We’re open to the public on Tuesday evenings, weather permitting. The time depends on the season of the year and when the Sun sets. Check our website for the current hours. On the rooftop deck we have the telescopes and our staff explains what our visitors are observing. We might be looking at the mountains on the Moon, the rings of Saturn, or storms on Jupiter.

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what do you do while at the Observatory?

I’m usually downstairs talking to visitors about the history of Ladd and giving tours of the building where I describe how it was operated a century ago. I sometimes do demonstrations for our visitors with the instrument collection. For example, I’ll use the Brashear spectroscope from 1891 to identify the chemical composition of a street light across our lawn. (In case you were wondering, it contained sodium vapor.)

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tell us about your journey.

I was born in Chicago, but my family moved to New England when I was about 5 years old. I’ve lived in nearby Massachusetts or Rhode Island for most of my life. I moved to Providence around the time I started working at the planetarium in the Museum of Natural History at Roger Williams Park. Providence is just the right size for me. Big enough to have a variety of interesting things to see and do, but not so large as to feel overwhelming and impersonal. I can get to know the city intimately, yet still discover new things.

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how did you get into the Physics and Astronomy field?

When I was a young child I would watch reruns of the original Star Trek. It wasn’t so much the space ships or aliens that impressed me. It was seeing human beings just simply standing on another planet that moved me. It gave me the idea that there were other worlds out there, and that you could travel beyond the Earth to visit them. That sparked my imagination.

My parents would then change the television channel and again I would see people walking on another world. But this time it was on the 6 o’clock news. A grainy video of astronauts in bulky spacesuits standing on a monochrome landscape with the crackling audio of a voice calmly saying “Beautiful, magnificent desolation.” It was, arguably, one of the few moments in human history when reality was more amazing than our wildest dreams.

I dug craters in the dirt in my backyard and my astronauts navigated a rover around them. Occasionally I would glance in the sky and wonder if, at that moment, they were looking back. In retrospect, it is quite possible that they were.

I began to read astronomy magazines that were illustrated with artists’ conceptions of what the planets in our solar system might look like, if we could just get close enough…

Over the years our robot explorers have beamed back images of the frozen surface of Saturn’s moon Titan and many other wonders. In just one year we’ll learn what another world looks like.

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Michael Umbricht // November, 1970

photo credit

Also, during my childhood I spent quite a bit of time each summer staying with family in Chicago. While there I frequently visited the Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of Science and Industry. That reinforced my interest in science and my desire to understand the nature of the universe. Those early experiences led me to pursue science education later in my life. For many years I worked at the Museum of Natural History in Roger Williams Park teaching astronomy at the Cormack Planetarium.

For every new vista that opens, our frontier recedes. There are now more worlds that we are just beginning to imagine. One cold January night in 2007 I captured an image of a star a few months after the announcement that a world had been discovered there. When I look at this picture I “see” much more than a small white dot.

This portion of the post was from Michael’s personal blog and can be found here: http://fornaxchimiae.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-dawn-of-new-era.html

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tell us about what you do.

While my background is in physics and astronomy I’ve spent most of my career doing science outreach and public education. Currently I’m more focused on teaching the history of science and technology from a public humanities perspective.

As Curator, I take care of the historic scientific instrument collection. I worked with my colleague Bob to calibrate the speed of the recently restored clock drive on the historic telescope from 1891. For a telescope that is this old it’s not possible to order parts from the factory if something breaks. We sometimes have our machine shop fabricate replacement parts. We do minor repairs and routine maintenance ourselves. The restoration of the telescope drive was performed by an experienced clockmaker.

I spend a lot of time researching the history of science at Brown in the archives or through digital records. I share the fascinating stories that I discover with our visitors on the public open nights, through private tours, and at our new blog.

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who inspires you and why?

Richard Feynman. In addition to his important contributions in theoretical physics he is also a thought provoking science communicator with an inspiring outlook on the world. Here is a link to a documentary called The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. It is about 50 min. long, but just the first two minutes where he talks about how a scientist views a flower will give you a feeling for both his personal philosophy and what, in general, inspires scientists to understand nature — the drive to discover both the grand structure and the inner workings of the universe.

Documentaryhttp://topdocumentaryfilms.com/pleasure-finding-things-out/

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what music do you enjoy?

At the risk of stereotyping myself… I have always been drawn to “space music.” In particular Kosmische, or so-called “Krautrock,” artists such as Klaus Schulze and early Tangerine Dream (in particular their early pre-sequencer albums like Zeit, Alpha Centauri, and especially Phaedra.) In a somewhat similar vein I like early prog rock, with my favorites being King Crimson and Live at Pompeii era Pink Floyd.

In the mid 1980s I took a couple of classes in electronic music. My final project was a musique concrète piece which I later digitized from reel-to-reel tape. The quality is not that great, but you can give it a listen at http://umbricht.org/music/ In the late 1980s I then built a PAiA Electronics modular synthesizer from a kit which I still own and have recently begun restoring.

For local shows from the past several years the bands that I’ve most enjoyed include Denim Venom, Mahi Mahi, and Lolita Black.

The best concert that I have ever been to was the King Crimson Three of a Perfect Pair tour in 1984. There’s a recording called Absent Lovers: Live in Montreal with the same set list.

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favorite quote.

“Forts, arsenals, garrisons, armies, navies, are means of security and defence, which were invented in half-civilized times and in feudal or despotic countries; but schoolhouses are the republican line of fortifications, and if they are dismantled and dilapidated, ignorance and vice will pour in their legions through every breach.”

Horace Mann, Fourth Annual Report of the Secretary of the Board of Education
The Common School Journal (Boston. January 13, 1841)

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any Astronomy books you would recommend?

The two that I would recommend are more about the history of astronomy and the sociology of science.
These two popular books overlap with some of my own research or interests:

Selling the True Time: Nineteenth-Century Timekeeping in America by Ian Bartky

Undead Science: Science Studies and the Afterlife of Cold Fusion by Bart Simon

My summer reading list:

A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America by Michael Barkun

A Tenth of a Second: A History by Jimena Canales

Longitude by Wire: Finding North America by Richard Stachurski

Somewhat astronomy related are my favorite science fiction novels:

His Master’s Voice and Solaris by Stanisław Lem

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

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where can our readers connect with you, the Ladd, and follow your personal journey?

Ladd Observatory

website: http://brown.edu/ladd
twitter: https://twitter.com/LaddObs
facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LaddObs
email list: https://listserv.brown.edu/?A0=laddobservatory
google+: https://plus.google.com/u/1/b/100488025143383552619/100488025143383552619/posts

Personal Research 

Personal blog: http://fornaxchimiae.blogspot.com/
Slides from my talks at Brown University: https://brown.academia.edu/MichaelUmbricht
google+ : http://google.com/+MichaelUmbricht
twitter: https://twitter.com/W9GYR

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***

Thank you Michael for sharing your story, knowledge, and workspace with us!

***

// photography + interview by Olivia //

You may also enjoy other Astronomy and Space-themed posts!

SPACE EXPLORATION // HUBBLE TELESCOPE

EXPLORING OTHER WORLDS

PLANTS & FLOWERS IN SPACE

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