From science fiction fantasies, like Star Wars and Stardust, to modern lovers soaring through space in the Griffith Observatory, (yes, that’s Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land) outer space has always sparked our imagination, inspiring an endless array of books, films, and media that portray constellations as a source of magic and epic tales. Indeed, stargazing appears to be the ultimate romantic venture that takes little else than a leisurely night stroll. It was with much anticipation that I visited Ladd Observatory, thrilled by the sheer idea of a room filled with gadgets for stargazing.
One of the oldest observatories in the country, Ladd is thick with the kind of character that only builds with time. A historic outpost of Brown University’s campus, it sits on a secluded corner and rises above the treetops in a quiet neighborhood with few, if any, tall buildings. A spherical dome the color of pale ivory sits atop a brick building that dates back to the late 19th century, arousing curiosity.
During the day, Ladd Observatory is a carefully organized museum. Mike Umbricht, the Observatory’s curator, explains that everything in the building has been preserved exactly as it was built in 1891. It feels like traveling through time to walk through the different exhibits on the first floor; sky charts and cosmic photographs are on display along with planetary globes and transit telescopes. It is not only the telescopes, however, that grab a visitor’s attention. Large heavy wheels sit in the corners, part of a pulley system designed to open up the ceiling for stargazing. When the wheels start to turn, it’s easy to imagine 19th century astronomers standing in the same spot.
It is at night, however, that the observatory springs to life, the wooden walls yawning awake, the entire building thrumming with the anticipation of visitors. Magic imbues the air, inexplicable but unquestionable. The telescopes are angled toward the planets, and the ceilings open up the sky from both the first floor and the dome. No amount of words or photos do justice to the ceiling parting aside to reveal scattered stars embedded in the deep blue of the sky, the clear liquid hue a stark contrast to the wooden ceiling overhead.
Upstairs inside the dome, the massive telescope points to Jupiter with its 12-inch lens. Later in the night, the telescope shifts to point to Saturn, and through the eyepiece, the planet’s famed rings and even its faint clouds are visible.
On the outdoor deck, nothing obstructs the view of the entire expanse of the sky. Visitors line up behind the portable telescopes that amplify stars such as the double star Nu Draconis, or dragon eyes. But even with the naked eye, dozens of stars are visible; there are no flashing neon signs or fluorescent lights nearby to dim the starlight. Excited whispers, sighs, and small exclamations of delight and astonishment carry through the patio. Virgo shines high above with Jupiter gleaming brightly; Scorpius hangs closer to the horizon, the tail and claw lining up. Ursa Major is unmistakable, and it is even possible to make out Ursa Minor next to it.
On one of these mid-summer nights, try visiting the Ladd Observatory during their open hours. Take a stroll through the exhibits, and take the time to admire the telescopes on display. Be sure to stay until dusk turns to night to trace the stars with your eyes. The magnificent telescope, the historic building, and a host of constellations will present an unforgettable experience.
by Jane Kim
Site: Ladd Observatory, Address: 210 Doyle Avenue, Providence, RI, 02906