The major astronomy story of the last month has been about the planned construction of a new telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope, and the associated protests trying to prevent the construction.
This story is important partly because of the world-class telescope we hope to build, but also because it represents the difficulties of doing large, complicated projects in a diverse society where not everyone agrees on fundamental values.
First some background. The mountain Mauna Kea in Hawaii is the best location for astronomy in the Northern Hemisphere. There are several factors that make a location good for astronomy.
Among the most important is high altitude, so that the light coming from space does not pass through much of the Earth's atmosphere. For example, the Mauna Kea Observatory has an elevation of about 14,000 feet.
A second key property of an observatory site is that the air is stable. Modern astronomical instruments do an increasingly wonderful job of removing the effect of air on starlight. These techniques work best if the air is moving in a predictable way. Mauna Kea has a smooth peak, leading to an especially smooth flow of air over the observatory. Most other mountains have sharper peaks, which lead to chaotic motion and worse conditions for doing astronomy.
The Thirty Meter Telescope, named after the diameter of the telescope mirror, would be dramatically larger than any other project on the mountain. A primary goal in building such a large telescope is to have the sensitivity to observe the light from the first stars and galaxies that formed in the observable universe. A key part of achieving this goal is to have stable air and to use the latest techniques for removing the effects of Earth's atmosphere. Our current telescopes are not sensitive enough to detect this very dim light.
The objections to the telescope construction come from some native Hawaiians. For many, Mauna Kea plays a central role in the origin story of humans. Because of its height, it is the meeting place of earth and sky, representing mother and father respectively. Some compare it in importance to the Garden of Eden in Christian traditions.
Furthermore, Hawaii, like many colonized locations, has a long history of poor treatment of native Hawaiians by other settlers to the island. This poor treatment has taken many forms, some quite recent, and clearly continues to underlie much of the conflict over this project.
The project's leaders were accused, in obtaining the initial legal permits, of avoiding the legal avenues where these cultural objections to development would have to be addressed. As a result, there were extensive court proceedings. The first permit application for construction was made in 2011, and the final state Supreme Court decision was made late last year.
The court decision, however, was to allow construction. The current protests aim to delay or halt construction through direct action. Among the protesters are several honored elders from the community, who were recently arrested.
Similar objections have been made against earlier telescopes. For example, the D.K. Inouye Solar Telescope was approved for construction on a different Hawaiian mountain as part of the recession stimulus package in 2009. After court proceedings, construction began in 2013 and completion is expected later this year. There were smaller-scale protests ofthis project as well, which have delayed completion.
The best way to frame the thinking on this issue was written by American Astronomical Society president Megan Donahue. In a message to professional astronomers, she advocated for this conflict to be resolved by Hawaiians. The conflict has its origins in a violent history. There has been a subsequent lack of trust. Are the protesters negotiating in good faith? Will the University of Hawaii, representing astronomers, respect religious values in their planning, construction and operation?
Hawaii is a diverse society where different people, with different backgrounds, have different values. Figuring out how to live and work together as a healthy society is going to be difficult.
The negotiation and compromise of a healthy society will be hard for outsiders to recognize. For those of us who do not live on Hawaii or not directly involved in the Thirty Meter Telescope planning and construction, we have very little to contribute. We should strive to just watch and listen.
Christer Watson, of Fort Wayne, is a professor of physics at Manchester University. Opinions expressed are his own. He wrote this column for The Journal Gazette, where his columns normally appear the first and third Tuesday of each month.