Dilemmas of an astrophysicist

Being an astrophysics student I find telescopes really cool. On the other hand I love culture and immersing myself in it. This is where I find myself torn and pulled between two sides. For years now scientists have been hoping for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) to finally begin construction on the summit of Mauna Kea. Yet there has been endless opposition and court cases against it; the mountain is considered sacred and should not be interfered with by man made constructions.

Years ago an agreement was made stating that a maximum of 8 telescopes could be built on the mountain. Some people argue that there are currently 13, yet one of the telescopes is actually 8 dishes comprised into an array, which would technically mean that they are still within the 8 telescope limit. Understandably, this has caused much rage and fury. The locals are tired of being walked all over. Whereas those pushing the limits of observational astrophysics to awe-inspiring magnitudes likely have no idea of how much they have been imposing upon others, and will need to be more sensitive in future.

It has been planned that the TMT will be built on the lower plateau, which is apparently not the sacred part of the mountain, since there are no shrines nor alters there. It also used to be an adz quarry that the Polynesians used to mine for basalt (which surely makes the whole sacred argument redundant?). The land has also been excavated and no remains have been found. Others say that the entire mountain is sacred, and that it doesn’t matter if there are remains or not. But then surely, with this argument, the whole island is technically sacred and we might as well not even be here.
Some are adamant that the TMT won’t be seen from the true summit, as it’s hidden lower on the other side of the mountain, whilst others disagree profusely. I have also heard that the TMT could have been built in Chile but since Gorden Moore, the co-founder of Intel, is donating $200 million to the project and has a house in Waimea, so he wants to be able to see the telescope from his garden… Yet who’s to say that the mountains in Chile are not considered sacred too. Furthermore, it is currently planned that the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), a 40m telescope, will be built in Chile, so it simply doesn’t make sense to have the two biggest telescopes in the world right next to each other.

For decades the telescopes on Mauna Kea have provided countless jobs for locals, and the TMT is inevitably going to create even more. Not only that, but it will continue to inspire astronomers young and old the world over, with countless astounding discoveries. The locals have been requesting that the other telescopes, soon be at the end of their lifetime, should be taken down as a compromise. It hasn’t happened yet, but one might as well get as much use out of the telescopes as possible, before simply discarding them like a piece of old junk.

My housemate is an activist and is utterly against the telescope. She sees it as an ego thing, similar to me being shocked by the size of people’s cars and houses here. We always want more and we want it bigger and better. But surely, from a scientific point of view, this is what we need in order to progress and satisfy our thirst for knowledge? We desire to continuously grow, progress, discover, and in order to achieve this, the larger the telescope the better we can see back in time into the depths of the universe.

I have always found it hard to justify astronomy when there is so much poverty and suffering in the world; it is incredibly expensive to build a telescope (the TMT currently estimated at $1.2 billion), and even more expensive to put one in outer space. I desperately want to appreciate the culture, and I’m sure that many other scientists do too, but it is difficult to have the opportunity to do so. More effort needs to be made to involve the locals in projects, rather than alienating them, so that they can understand and appreciate what it is that we are hoping to achieve, and why.
There are already telescopes visible from the summit, what difference will another make? Ok, yes this is three times larger than each of the Keck telescopes, but I see similarities with the wind farm argument. Just as I find wind turbines beautiful, the telescopes are also beautiful, even more astoundingly so when one takes into account the sheer complexity that they involve. The technology is mind-boggling, and the results we gain even more so. People complain that we need to save the planet and cut down on oil and gas, yet they do not want wind farms because they are an eyesore. Surely one of the main reasons we are human is the fact that we constantly love to learn about the mysteries unknown. It gives us a purpose, and feeds and nourishes our curiosity. As we look further and further outwards, we must remember what’s right in front of us too. And perhaps the Hawaiian locals are catalysts for that. I can only hope that one day science and culture can work together in harmony.

Edited on 11/04/15.

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