Big Astro

The advent of the web and social media have led to a huge outpouring of enthusiasm for science but almost all sciences have skeletons in their closet, some real and some imaginary. Physicists gave us the bomb, chemists cook up the chemicals they put in the food (yes, yes, and you cheerfully drink H-2-O and breathe O-2) and even if medical researchers have doubled our lifespan many will claim they are in thrall to Big Pharma and specialise in diseases of the rich, in addition to perpetrating more specific and chilling abuses. But astronomers often sail past earthly concerns. After all, what’s not to like? Astronomy generates an endless stream of stories about strange planets, unlikely stars, and the birth of the universe, but nothing anyone can easily get upset about. 

Even journalists suspend their usual rules for astronomy and other good-news science stories. Copy approval, sending sources a draft of an article for commentary and correction, is anathema to journalists on a hard news story, but I am often sent drafts “to check the details” when I talk to the media about astronomy. So perhaps this is why astronomers have been caught flat-footed by the apparently sudden eruption of protest around the Thirty Metre Telescope, or TMT. The issue is not the $1.3 billion price tag but its location at the summit of Mauna Kea, the highest peak on Hawai`i’s Big Island. The problem is that while Mauna Kea is a fantastic place for astronomy (a huge mountain rising out of the Pacific Ocean; the skies above it are stable and clear) it is also sacred to many native Hawai`ians. The issues are far from straightforward, but Buzzfeed (in its new incarnation as a purveyor of long-form news) and the Huffington Post have summaries of recent events and TMT consortium has put its own response to the controversy online. However, for some astronomers it has led to the discovery that they may not always be the good guys.

While we might wish it were otherwise, astronomy is not apolitical. Science communicators (myself included) wax eloquent about space exploration, but the space race was launched by Cold War competition. Nor is the politicisation of astronomy new. The British navigator, James Cook, set sail in the Endeavour from Plymouth in 1768 to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti, as part of a campaign to determine the overall scale of the solar system. Cook carried additional sealed orders to be opened after the transit observations were complete, which told him to continue from Tahiti on a voyage of discovery into the Pacific; part of the larger competition between European powers to explore trade-routes and acquire outposts around the world. (By many accounts, the contents of those orders were well-known around London before he sailed.) And like a modern-day space programme, Cook’s voyages were a simultaneous national investment in pure science, prestige and geopolitical leverage. [And Cook and Hawaii are tightly connected – he commanded the first European ships to make landfall in Hawai’i, and was killed in a skirmish there in 1778.]

New Zealand and Hawai`i are both parts of the Polynesian world. As a New Zealander, much of the language used by the Mauna Kea protestors is familiar from local debates. From a purely linguistic perspective maunga, which is mountain in Te Reo (as the Māori language is referred to in New Zealand English), is cognate to the Hawai`ian mauna. Hawai`ian and Māori both speak of their alienation from their traditional resources by the arrival of Europeans, and their deep connection to the land. In a formal setting, a person introducing themselves in Te Reo will open by listing their whakapapa or ancestry, along with their maunga, awa (river) and moana (sea), identifying themselves both with their genealogy and their specific point of origin. 

And worldviews really do differ. If you are an astronomer or astrophysicist it is not uncommon to hear enthusiastic talk about founding “colonies” on the Moon or Mars. Obviously, the “final frontier” is genuinely unpopulated, but it is worth reflecting that colonisation is not a happy word for many of our planet’s inhabitants.

No group is monolithic, and many Hawai`ians are clearly excited about the construction of the TMT. However, it is tempting for astronomers and advocates for the TMT to listen to these Hawai`ian voices, and assume that the other side is being stirred up by a few malcontents. However, from the perspective of a European New Zealander (pākehā, in the local terminology) the concerns being raised about the TMT and the use of Mauna Kea for astronomy in Hawai`i closely match those heard in discussions about the ownership and use of natural landmarks in New Zealand. 

As an astrophysicist, I hope that the TMT will be built – it is an astonishing instrument, big enough to catch the the light from the first generation of stars to be born after the Big Bang, and sharp enough to make images of planets around other suns. However, I also hope that my community can do this without riding roughshod over a people who claim Mauna Kea as their own. Whether or not this this is possible with Mauna Kea I cannot say, but simply denying the validity of these concerns is not a promising start. 

Image: Visualisation of the TMT;

One thought on “Big Astro

  1. Thought provoking and very interesting blog. Looking forward to more of the same.

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