Mountains, Stars, Conflict
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.
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 Astronomer, c. 1668.