Scientists are building mega telescope on sacred Hawaiian MT- Locals say hell no


By Slate

A massive debate has erupted about whether to build a giant new $1.5 billion telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea. Native Hawaiian protesters have blockaded the site, claiming that the 18-story–high structure is being built on one of their sacred spaces. The governor has temporarily halted construction.

Among astronomers, there is a great deal of confusion about how this conflict could have come about. There is confusion about why the mountain matters so much to people. There is confusion about why people could be so mad at science, which is after all for the benefit of humanity. As one astronomer put it to New Scientist “Astronomy is about as pure and as clean as you can get, so what’s the big deal?”

There is much to say about the complexity of the situation and the importance of the site and what should be done, but that has been and is being said better by Hawaiians.

I’m a physicist turned writer who specializes in finding stories of how science has affected people’s lives. I’m disturbed that this conflict came as a surprise, and disturbed about what that says about the culture of science. I’m disturbed by how scientists see ourselves as separate from culture and history, unaffected by it, and not responsible for its ills, and I wonder what we can do about that.

Our news is dominated by misery: wars and injustice and the daily grind of our banal horribleness to each other. We see invasions and racism and misogyny, drought and starvation and refugees. To many of us, science offers a respite from this, a place of curiosity and wonder. There is incredible solace in knowing that the objects of our study—the light from galaxies, the quarks and gluons bound into protons, even the chemical bonds in the strands of our DNA—are oblivious to these things. It’s one of the great joys I took as a particle physicist, knowing that what we studied was universal, true for all things and all people.

We all spoke fluent physics.Because of that, though, there is an incredible temptation to believe that because these things are universal, by studying them we transcend the issues of people, that we ourselves become universal, not subject to or responsible for the troubles that surround us. But just as the laws of physics are the same on Earth and in the skies, just as the stuff of matter is the same in the interstellar dust and in our bodies, so the tides of history and the nature of people are the same in the sciences and the rest of our society.

And so transcendence can take the form of blindness to differences between people and to our own biases. We assume scientists all think and believe the same things, even beyond the unequivocal data. We are all equal as scientists if we all value the same principles. And what we value comes almost entirely from Enlightenment-era Europe. This is a troubling state of affairs if we claim to strive for all humanity.

One time when I was sitting in the cafeteria at Fermilab, for decades home of the world’s largest particle accelerator, I looked around and noticed that I was surrounded by people from a dizzying array of countries, and I realized I could have a conversation with any of them. We all spoke fluent physics. That is indeed a wonderful thing. But is the culture of physics a place where many different people come together around a common goal, or a place where anyone is welcome as long as they act and believe the way everyone else does? It’s a fine distinction, but a vital one, and I think the answer is the latter.

As you drive into the main building at Fermilab you pass a row of flags from all countries represented by scientists working at the lab. The American flag is much bigger, and set apart. Even there, at the heart of fundamental, pure research, done out of the joy of discovery and firm belief that knowledge benefits all humankind, we make clear that we—in this case the Americans who run the place—think we’re better than everyone else. We scientists are not apart from these things. Our cultures matter. The history that brings people to a particular moment is important.

The debate now about the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea is not just about the specific location. It’s about a resurgence of Hawaiian culture and self-determination after more than a century of oppression. Telescopes were a part of that.

In 1893, Europeans overthrew the government of Hawaii in a coup d’état. In 1896, the Hawaiian language was banned. In 1941, the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan. In 1959 Hawaii was made a state of the United States of America. In 1968, the first telescope was built on Mauna Kea by the U.S. Air Force. In the 1970s, native Hawaiians were evicted from their homes to make way for high-income and tourist development. In 1976, protesters occupied Kaho’olawe, the smallest of the main islands, to oppose its use as a bombing range; two protesters were killed. In 1998, the legislature attempted to ban the gathering of plants used in the traditional hula dance. In 2002, the 13th telescope on Mauna Kea was completed, also to protest. There are vastly more stories than these of people dismissing Native Hawaiian rights and concerns.

The debate about the new telescope is also about rituals and sacred places. I think as scientists we miss the importance of ritual, in part because we see ourselves as people who have gotten past such things. Of course that’s wrong. Like all people, we create patterns in what we do that reflect who we are. We have thesis defenses and colloquia and conferences. We have Darwin Day and Science Festivals. We preserve Newton’s Tree and Da Vinci’s notebooks and Galileo’s middle finger, as if it’s a relic from a saint. Like all rituals and sacred things, these are declarations to the world and to ourselves of who we are and what we value. That is what’s at stake here. Building on Mauna Kea is not just building on a historical site, it is changing the nature of what it means to be Hawaiian, a change imposed from the outside.

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