Protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope: Is tradition preventing us from scientific discoveries?

Oriana Pateiro Pacheco explores the fine line dividing the blend of science and advancement from culture and community

Culture and history are to be preserved, protected and respected - even if they may get in the way of progress. The long-lasting protests in Hawaii against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope is a striking current example of the fact that science and tradition can’t always go hand in hand.

Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano in the island of Hawaii that is home to several space observation facilities. The summit, 13,796ft above sea level, is over the inversion layer, keeping most clouds below the observatories ensuring the air is dry and free of atmospheric pollution. The top atmosphere is exceptionally stable, and the very dark skies resulting from Mauna Kea's distance from city lights minimizes light pollution and makes the volcano ideal for submillimetre and infrared astronomy. It was first selected as the location for the UH88 (University of Hawai'i 88-inch (2.24-meter) telescope) in 1968, and since then 11 other projects have been added to the peak of the natural monument.

As far as the Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce explains, the astronomical development of Mauna Kea would provide an economical growth favourable for natives. However, an increasing percentage of the population has expressed their disapproval of the space projects in the sacred volcano, which according to their tradition is home to Wākea, the sky god. Their discontent became more clear than ever since October 7th 2014, after the confirmation of the construction of the TMT (Thirty Meter Telescope) in Hawaii. In order to sabotage the project, protesters sited at an elevation of 6,632ft in a “Kūpuna tent”, they strategically placed themselves to block any access to roads up the mountain and stop construction vehicles from reaching the summit. This resulted in the evacuation of the already functioning observatories personnel and the arrest of 33 protestors.

Thirty Meter Telescope blockade, 7th October 2014

In the course of almost 7 years, natives have been able to gain the interest of the global gaze as affluent celebrities such as Jason Momoa (known for his role in Aquaman) and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have openly claimed their support to the protests and travelled to Mauna Kea to participate in them. The Supreme Court of Hawaii seemed to stand against the telescope when TMT’s building permits were invalidated on December 2nd 2015. The astronomical corporation had to remove all of the construction equipment and vehicles from the summit. However, the tables turned when the Supreme Court of the State of Hawaii ultimately approved the permit following a lengthy contested hearing case in October, 2018.

Despite years of delay, the project is still alive and expected to be completed by 2027 as said by the TMT International Observatory LLC, also known as the TIO. The TIO is a non-profit international partnership between the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, the National Institutes of Natural Sciences of Japan, the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Department of Science and Technology of India, and the National Research Council (Canada). As well as being the designer and the developer of the telescope, the TIO will also run the TMT operations once it is completed.

TMT is designed to provide unparalleled resolution with images more than 12 times sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope. This will provide new observational opportunities in every field of astronomy and astrophysics. As read on the TIO’s website, “Its adaptive optics and spectroscopic capabilities will allow astronomers to explore the mysterious period in the life of the universe when the first stars and galaxies were formed, providing information about the nature of "first-light" objects and their effects on the universe's evolution”. Its applications include the study of star and planet formation and the characterization of the properties of exoplanets - this has been an increasingly popular topic of research in recent years.

The TMT International Observatory’s team have also shared their stance regarding the protests – “TMT has diligently followed the state’s laws, procedures, and processes in its efforts to build TMT on Maunakea”. Since the first steps of the project, the TIO promised to engage with the community and give back to the island by funding STEM education through the THINK Fund at Hawaii Community Foundation and the Pauahi Foundation.

Taking into account the enormous impact the TMT project could have, some locals also argued against the protesters and gathered in support of the TMT project outside the Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu in July, 2019. "Hawaiians are just so tied to astronomy I cannot, in any stretch of the imagination, think that TMT is something that our ancestors wouldn't just jump on and embrace” says Dr. Paul Coleman, astronomer and professor at the University of Hawaii. As for today, the debate still sits in the air on whether or not Mauna Kea should be removed from the list of potential astronomical observation sites. While the sole thought of construction projects in the mountain represents a violation of indigenous rights for some activists, locals and even scientists, many others believe that scientific and technological advances outweigh the cultural loss. The discussion mimics and reminds us of the frequent battle between our past and our future, and the responsibility that scientists have on being mindful of the repercussions of their unlimited curiosity in other areas of knowledge and ethics.

From Issue 22: the Dark Side of Science

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