The war over the construction of the state’s Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea has now threatened the University of Hawaii itself, with students and faculty calling for a protest walk-out across the UH system today at noon. That protest was too happen a day after 3,000 or so activists vented their anger against the proposed telescope at Iolani Palace in Honolulu.
The choice of the palace as a place to denounce the construction of what’s planned to be the 14th largest telescope in the world is heavy with irony. After all, you don’t have to spend too much time inside Iolani Palace in Honolulu before docents have impressed upon you the appreciation King Kalakaua felt for Victorian era science and technology. As a result, Kalakaua had the palace wired for electrical lights and telephones before such inventions reached the White House. It’s a fact not lost on the current public relations people selling the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope on the Big Island.
“It will afford me unfeigned satisfaction if my kingdom can add its quota toward the successful accomplishment of the most important astronomical observation of the present century and assist, however humbly, the enlightened nations of the earth in these costly enterprises…” said Kalakaua in 1874, a quote that’s plastered way up high on the new TMT website (Maunakeaandtmt.org).
This new telescope has been in development for seven years (there are already 13 scopes atop the Mauna Kea summit). As Lurline Wailana McGregor and Christine Hitt noted in an Apr. 9 Mana Magazine post, there have been many protests against the Mauna Kea telescopes through the years, with at least one family’s shrine “destroyed” and “desecrated on at least seven other occasions” by telescope construction.
Now Native Hawaii protesters are up on the mountaintop itself, attempting to physically stop construction. Many have been arrested, but they’ve also been successful–Governor David Ige placed a series of temporary holds on the project, the latest of which expires on Apr. 20.
“Mauna Kea is sacred to Native Hawaiians and is part of the corpus of Hawaiian national lands but this is not simply a Native Hawaiian issue,” English Professor Candace Fujikane said in the Apr. 12 Civil Beat story on the protests. “This is an environmental issue, one of upholding legal protections for the environment as well as one of good government. There are three court cases yet to be resolved over the TMT so why is the University beginning construction?”
The issue of carrying on construction while legal challenges are pending is of course legitimate. But such protests are threatening to balloon into a larger denunciation of science. The TMT is neither a missile battery nor a luxury resort–it’s a tool of scientific discovery, and concern that the protests are belittling scientific research is starting to lead some Native Hawaiians to explain why they value the profane over the sacred.
“I’m one of the Hawaiians that really believes that this is something that we should really take over,” UH Astronomer Paul Coleman said in a separate Apr. 9 Mana Magazine post. “Hawaiians have a long history of astronomy. I would say this is the way for us, as Hawaiians, to step into the modern world as well. Why shouldn’t we have many, many, many Hawaiian astronomers up there or Hawaiian engineers or you name it. We’re smart folks. We can do this and this is a wonderful opportunity for our people to get out and into the modern, high-tech stuff.”
Here on Maui, Hawaiian libertarian activist Bronson Kaahui also articulated his support for the scope, in the form of an Apr. 9 Civil Beat op-ed piece.
“By mastering the science of celestial navigation, our ancestors were able to explore and colonize the world’s largest ocean at a time when most European vessels dared not venture beyond sight of land,” Kaahui wrote. “It was science, not the irrational fear of pagan deities and inanimate objects, which brought Polynesians to Hawaii.”