Archive for May 2015

Mountains, Stars, Conflict

May 31, 2015

You’ll forgive, I hope, the self promotion here, but I want to draw attention to an essay I have in The Boston Globe today.

It’s about the controversy over the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) that is beginning to be constructed at the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Mauna Kea is one of the world’s most significant sites for optical and near infrared astronomy — it’s already home to thirteen telescopes, including the two largest now in operation in the twin Keck instruments.

Jan_Vermeer_-_The_Astronomer

The TMT is designed to have a primary mirror three times the diameter of the Keck ten meter light buckets, with nine times the light gathering area.  Over the last century — which covers the era of large, mountaintop optical observatorys, each similar leap in telescope size has produced startling, powerful discoveries, and there’s every reason to expect the same of the TMT and its planned southern hemisphere counterparts.

But there’s a catch — or something more fundamental than a mere glitch.  Mauna Kea is a sacred site within the Hawaiian tradition, and an environmentally sensitive one, and opposition to TMT has grown from a point of tension to one of direct confrontation.  Construction of the TMT has been suspended, and the governor of Hawaii has called for the removal of a quarter of the existing observatories before the TMT itself begins operating.

In the midst of this confrontation, plenty of people have framed the two sides as another battle in the old war between science and religious belief.  I say in the Globe today that’s a mistake.  A taste:

….the TMT dispute shows where the science versus religion trope goes wrong. The Hawaiian protesters haven’t said that Mauna Kea’s telescopes are inherently impious, or that the data they collect is somehow wrong, or that Hawaiian mythology is a better account of the cosmos. Rather, the value, the joy, the need the observatories satisfy may indeed satisfy many, but not those continuing a Hawaiian tradition that allows its heirs to find connection with memory, with history, with nature — to achieve the same transcendence sought by those who find beauty in the measure of the universe.

That is: The TMT defenders and their opponents seek analogous rewards from their presence on Mauna Kea. Their conflict isn’t between the competing worldviews of science and religion, but between desires that are kin to each other — and that require the same physical space.

Check it out, if your Sunday afternoon tends that way.  Let me know what you think.

Image:  Johannes Vermeer,  The Astronomerc. 1668.

 

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I’ll Be Your Cornhusker Tonight

May 27, 2015

Go Nebraska!

Nebraska on Wednesday became the first conservative state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty, with lawmakers defying their Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, a staunch supporter of capital punishment who had lobbied vigorously against banning it.

Manet,_Edouard_-_The_Execution_of_Emperor_Maximilian,_1867

By a 30 to 19 vote that cut across party lines, the Legislature overrode the governor’s veto on Tuesday of a bill repealing the state’s death penalty law. The measure garnered just enough votes to overcome the veto.

Slowly, haltingly, one step forward, often too many back, we progress.

Image:  Edouard Manet, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian 1867

The Arc Of History, Ireland Edition

May 23, 2015

Those of us of a certain age can only marvel at this photograph:

Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 11.47.41 AM

There you have what was for a generation the face of the IRA — with all of its connections to Catholic Irish history — next to Panti Bliss, aka Rory O’Neill, who serves, semi-accidentally as a leading voice for Irish marriage equality and sex/gender equal rights — who stands next to Frances Fitzgerald, the Irish Republic’s Minister for Justice and Equality*.  To say this is not a juxtaposition that someone watching Irish politics in, say the 80s, would have been able to imagine is to understatement as Velveeta is to food.

All of which is to open up a thread to celebrate a real victory:  Ireland’s Yes vote on its same-sex marriage referendum.  It was barely more than two decades ago that Ireland decriminalized homosexuality.  Now this.  The arc of history bends towards justice…

I’ve no Irish descent in me anywhere; so let me just say thanks to those who voted in favor for making a huge public statement.

Next up, there, crucially, and more and more every day here:  the rights of women to control their own reproductive lives.

Over to you.

*Now there’s a cabinet title I endorse!

Update:  via the Guardian, this from Diarmuid Martin, archibishop of Dublin:

“This is a social revolution,” he told RTE Television. “The church has a huge task in front of it get its message across to young people … The church needs to do a reality check.”

Asked if the church was ill-equipped to deal with these issues, he said: “We tend to think of black and white but most of us live our lives in grey.” The church needed to use the result to harness the energy that has been unleashed in favour of equality for all, the archbishop added.

If the Catholic Church continues along lines suggested here by Martin and in a number of ways by the current Pope,this seems to this Jewish atheist to be an unequivocally good thing.

Update 2:  And the final numbers are in.

Yes:  1,201,607 — 62.07%

No:    734,300 — 37.93%

Yes. It Really Is Brain Surgery

May 4, 2015

To this. Except you can’t.  No selfie you will ever take can trump what Steven Keating achieved:

[Warning: not (to me) gross stuff in the video below. But graphic. Front row seats and all that.]

I love the utter commitment to the prinicple that more knowledge — even tough truths — is always better than less.

Consider this a valentine to your afternoon, in celebration of the first truly warm day of this too-long postponed spring in your humble blogger’s neck of the woods.