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!

 photo b71bff2a-08de-4563-ab5d-80d975e6d146.jpg

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.

 photo c4f0f44d-f012-4654-97e9-0dc72ac696fd.jpg


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.)

 photo 1c7e4af5-fd84-4a5a-94eb-d7ec22069e78.jpg

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.

 photo d95e1754-e78e-4c47-8e82-e983b7e5d372.jpg

 photo b903d7f2-9c8d-4d7c-9448-15669d66ed73.jpg

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.


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:

 photo 45230f7c-f530-4650-90e6-21799974e17c.jpg

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.

 photo 8fd2f069-6d3f-480e-bf5c-b83494f36f2a.jpg

 photo 8e30e9d7-b174-47a5-ac0e-2fd24c964be6.jpg

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.


 photo 33359875-f9f0-4d62-8cbf-1ce89881bd9e.jpg
 photo ac3adfcd-1d71-49eb-b76f-c60454b5bf6b.jpg

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 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.

 photo 019d17b1-f714-45c6-b55c-709d5ffd8fa9.jpg

 photo 0ce18c7f-328d-4d61-ad6e-018118a60621.jpg

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)

 photo bb2707c3-4e9e-44fb-ae07-4d4a677df207.jpg

 photo d6962d64-3c63-48fd-bdd3-cc7c2d09f7d5.jpg

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

 photo f1da590a-8786-46c6-9d0c-40d3f7ef6a8d.jpg

 photo 100fd36c-87d7-4056-b1d0-52a27e83b556.jpg

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

Ladd Observatory

email list:

Personal Research 

Personal blog:
Slides from my talks at Brown University:
google+ :

 photo fca8d336-9121-4d6c-9018-a82b01a8c1ca.jpg


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!





When I was 10 years old I was newly arrived in the US from my home country of Venezuela. I remember my teacher at school referred me to a Saturday program where I would learn all sorts of things in a hands-on way. One time the program was scheduled in the evening and was sponsored by NASA.

I didn’t know much at all about astronomy or what NASA was, but I remember they showed us how to make telescopes from cardboard tubes and glass pieces, and then we went outside to look at the moon. To this day, I still remember how blown away I was to look at the moon from a telescope I had made. It was that day, that I fell in love with everything having to do with astronomy.

Fast forward quite a few years later and I am still as mesmerized, if not more, by the skies above us. I spend all my free time reading all the books I can carry (literally) out of the library.

The other day, after many years of wanting to get a closer look at the moon I purchased my very first telescope! I ordered a Celestron Travelscope online and to be honest it is soooo good. It’s super easy to assemble, it’s lightweight, meant for travel, and even comes with a backpack! If you’re in the market or even considering a telescope – this is a great starter scope. The other night I went outside and got a look at the moon and almost cried. I swear. It’s mind blowing to think that we sent humans there.

I can’t wait until we can leave this planet and explore other worlds. Until then, I have a telescope and a lot of books. And that’s what I’ll explore other worlds with.

celestron telescope 6

celestron telescope 1

celestron telescope 7

celestron telescope 3

celestron telescope 2celestron telescope 5

Pursue what you love. You’ll realize that you’ve loved that for a very long time,

// photography by Olivia //
**This post was not sponsored by Celestron- these are just my personal opinions **


Have you ever heard of a Salt Marsh? Well, a salt marsh is something most people don’t know about because it doesn’t look like anything special. It’s just an open piece of land near the ocean (or bay) that has tall grass and is usually pretty muddy. Although seemingly unimportant, healthy salt marshes provide A LOT of benefits for those living near them. Unfortunately, for many years salt marshes were used as landfills and covered up because people didn’t know what they were for.

Thankfully, today we know that salt marshes are overflowing with benefits! For example, they act as nurseries for fish. This literally means that fish come to salt marshes and lay their eggs! This helps local businesses, restaurants, and fishermen. Salt Marshes also provide protection from flooding and storms because the soil soaks up a lot of water. They are a huge benefit for the environment as they provide a lot of nutrients and living space for the animals living there.

I really value living somewhere that values the environment. I encourage you to check out your local parks, trails, and salt marshes (if there’s any around you!) Supporting it will keep it around.

The salt marsh below is Jacob’s Point in Warren, Rhode Island.

ri salt marshri salt marsh 2ri salt marsh 3ri salt marsh 4ri salt marsh 5ri salt marsh 6ri salt marsh 7ri salt marsh 8ri salt marsh 9




// post and photos by Olivia //

Our Place in Space

Our Solar System is really large from our perspective on our small blue planet. In the grand scheme of the Universe and other galaxies however, we are a speck of dust, if not smaller. I always find that reading Astronomy gives me such a broader perspective of my existence, and no matter how incomprehensibly large the Universe may seem, it gives me a sense of wonder and adventure.

The great science communicator, Carl Sagan in his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space wrote some of the most poetic and beautiful pieces about our place in space. Here is one of my favorites:

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

You can see from the image below, Earth pales in comparison to the other planets. Can we just talk about how ginormous Jupiter is?!
IMG_0144 copy IMG_0144

Today, we know more than any civilization has ever known. And, we’ve only scratched the surface of what there is to know about our Universe. Never lose your sense of wonder. It’s what has kept our civilizations and humanity going for so long.


The Dilemma of Time

brian cox_ e=mc2_ winter moon

The concept of time is absolutely mind blowing. We understand time in our day-to-day events but when you sit down to think about the concept of time and space, I guarantee it will blow your mind. One book I highly recommend is Why Does E=mc2? (And Why Should We Care?) by Brian Cox is absolutely wonderful in explaining Einstein’s theory of relativity and why we should care. The truth is, we should care.

It’s sad but there are so many concepts we learn in middle and high school but quickly forget because we are so wrapped up in other things like boyfriends and tamagotchi’s (please tell me you know what a tamagotchi is…) It’s a beautiful thing revisiting Science, Math, English, Art, etc. as an adult especially because so much has changed since the first time we learned it; I know that my perspective and appreciation is so much greater.

Unfortunately, we cannot escape our concept of time and here it is in our faces everyday. It’s insane that the summer is coming to an end and we are now closer to Fall. The more years go by, the faster time seems to get and I am really making it a point to enjoy each moment and to make the days really count. What does that mean? Well, progress towards career goals, progress towards relationships, and progress to overall mental and physical health on a daily basis.

I am reminded of Andy Warhol’s quote:

“They always say time changes things,

but you actually have to change them yourself.”

brian cox_ e=mc2

 Cheers to Einstein and Brian Cox!



//photography by Olivia //