Ep. 554: Big Telescope Controversy in Hawai’i

This episode recorded on Wednesday, January 8

This week we’re live at the American Astronomical Society’s 235th meeting in Honolulu, Hawai’i. We learned about new planets, black holes and star formation, but the big issue hanging over the whole conference is the protests and politics over the new Thirty Meter Telescope due for construction on Mauna Kea.

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Interviewer:                 Astronomy Cast episode 554, Big Telescope Controversy in Hawaii. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know. I’m Frazier Cane, publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, is Dr. Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the Director of Cosmo Quest.

                                    So this week is prerecorded. Pamela and I were at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii and we learned all about various topics in space and astronomy, and black holes, and new planets, and star formation, and crisis in cosmology and all kinds of good stuff.

But hanging over the entire conference was the bit controversy with the construction of the 30 meter telescope with protesters, counter protestors, and we got a chance to talk to people behind the scenes to see their points of view and really understand what impact the delays has already had on observing on the big island as well as what we can expect in the futures.

So welcome to this very special episode of Astronomy Casts from the American Astronomical Society 2:35 in Honolulu, Hawaii, in front of a large audience.

Interviewee:                There’s one silent human.

Interviewer:                 But actually we’re going to be recording two episodes today, we’re going to be doing – which are really the two main topics that happened here at The American Astronomical Society meeting that everybody was talking about.

                                    It didn’t quite come to blows but close I think in some situations. So we thought why not? Let’s take this controversy head on and we’ll go from there.

                                    Shall I just begin and then – so what are the numbers, the first one is – you know what we can, if you want Nancy, I can record or Suzie I can record an intro afterwards and then deliver that where I say, Hey everybody this is an episode of Astronomy Cast that we recorded bla, bla, bla, and you can edit it together, so why don’t we do that? And we’ll just go straight into the episode.

                                    Now are we doing –?

Interviewee:                We’re doing 554 which is fixed astronomy culture of Hawaii first, and then – and I found the YouTube video.

Interviewer:                 Okay great, then we’ll do the Star Link one second.

Interviewee:                Yes.

Interviewer:                 Okay great. Let me just get a timer.

Interviewee:                And there is no Chad here. Chad is off getting B role right now.

Interviewer:                 Yeah, he’s running out of time ot get all the B role he wants for all the videos we’ve been shooting so he’s shooting madly. We’ve filled up – I think we’re close to a terabyte of footage.

Interviewee:                That’s amazing.

Interviewer:                 Yeah for this whole – we’ve filled up both video cards twice at this point. Yeah, we’ve got a ton and ton of interviews. We already posted, I hope people have seen, we’ve posted the first interview with Ethan Seagull. That went out just today and there’s a special guest star from you and then a ton of interesting conversations. So, we’ve been busting our asses to get some footage out for people.

                                    Let’s get into. Let me just start a timer so I know how long we’re taking.

Interviewee:                And Suzie, since we’re single mic-ed I’m just going to have you strip the video off of the YouTube to make things easier. On my laptop not on you. I’m sorry.

Interviewer:                 All right. Okay. All right so this is going to be the first part of our two-part episode while we’re here in Hawaii and we’re really going to be focusing on the two largest topics that everybody is dealing with.

                                    And I don’t know if whoever had decided to have the American Astronomical Society meeting have its meeting in Honolulu, I’m not sure how long ago it was planned, but of course we’ve all been watching over the last year the rise of protests over what’s going on in Mauna Kea with the 30 meter telescope and all the other observatories.

                                    So, for this portion we’re going to talk about the controversy and really what’s going on in Hawaii, the local voices we’ve had a chance to talk to, the concerns of the scientists, the science they want to do and maybe even some of the alternative places that might have to be chosen if it looks like it’s not going to work here in Hawaii.

                                    And even what the future holds when the lease runs out for the existing observatories that are on Mauna Kea. So, where do you want to start?

Interviewee:                So, to just review some of the history here. Back in the 1960s there was a lease arranged with the Hawaiian Department of Land Resources that would allow the University of Hawaii to well have access to Mauna Kea, a sacred mountain to the Hawaiian people at a cost of just $1 per year.

                                    And there were caveats to this. There could only be a certain small number of telescopes put up there. The indigenous people would need to be able to continue to have access to their sites on the mountain.

                                    This is a place where people go to hunt, to worship, to well be part of this land that is so much a part of the Hawaiian culture and religious system.

                                    Now over the years different things have come to a head as astronomy has found ways to follow the letter of the law without following the spirit of the law.

                                    So, for instance, CAC 1 and 2 is counted as one of those observatories even though it’s two giant multi-meter telescopes.

Interviewer:                 They act as one together –


Interviewee:                Sometimes.     

Interviewer:                 Sometimes, if they need to. Or they can be two different telescopes looking at separate objects.

Interviewee:                And at the same time this problem with the astronomers following the letter of the law not the spirit of the law has been taken place. There’s also been a change in the local culture, back in the 1800s the Hawaiian Monarchy was overrun in the spirit of capitalism to allow essentially the White people who had been buying land to better – well –

Interviewer:                 Enrich themselves. Maintain better control over the island.

Interviewee:                What he said.

Interviewer:                 And, so, I think there are more than 100 years of grievances just in general that are – have bubbled up in all sorts of places across Hawaii and what’s happening with the astronomers is just one example of this general rage and frustration about how, first nations peoples have been treated.

                                    I mean really, not just here in Hawaii, but we have the same situation in Canada. There’s unresolved land disputes that are happening in Canada and I know it’s happening in Australia and wherever you’ve got a first nation’s people that have been displaced you’ve got this pent up rage and frustration that is looking for any hot button issue to try to bring it up back again and this is a great example, again, of what is perceived as a very large telescope put in a very sacred spot on the mountain.

                                    But it’s just another example of people who are not islanders making a decision, coming here, deciding what they want to do, and just steamrolling ahead until they get what they want.

Interviewee:                And this is a case where at this moment when we’re looking to build a 30 meter telescope, it’s that same moment in history where there’s a resurgence of bringing back the Hawaiian language, going back and recognizing that until the 1890s that sovereign nation that was here, they had a rich culture – a rich international trading system.

                                    There are newspaper recordings that allow that culture to be seen and brought back. And these people who want to bring back their culture, they also want to bring back their mountain as being their mountain.

                                    So, you have a conflict of the astronomers are like, but it’s our mountain now, astronomy, I don’t care about your religion. And these are the problems that we faced just over the past decade or so. A large number of scientists have unfortunately put forward arguments along the lines of, but my science is more important than your culture.

                                    And there’s been a lack of listening. And people have been litigating instead of building relationships.

Interviewer:                 And from a scientific standpoint, there is no question, Mauna Kea is without a doubt the finest place to put a telescope in the northern hemisphere. It is the tallest, clearest, most accessible mountains with some of the clearest views from the top of the summit.

                                    There’s no question that it really is a premiere place to put a telescope. That said, it has other purposes as well. So, let’s talk a bit about what we understand the – with the controversy of course with the new 30-meter telescope that’s coming in.

                                    So, let’s talk a bit about what the plans are to – what mitigations they’ve already put in place for the 30-meter telescope to try to sort of understand. Because my perspective has definitely been that although they are still moving forward, they are taking the court’s judgment on this. They did try to work more closely in concert with locals in the placement, in some of the environmental concerns and some of that.

Interviewee:                And so what we’ve been hearing at this conference is that in the day right after Christmas a new accord was found where they were able to get one of the tents that had been put up by protesters moved so there is easier access to the mountain.

                                    They have started to actually build – well these starts of a new relationship. And this has been a recurring theme throughout the week where speaker after speaker, both from the indigenous peoples and from the astronomy community have been saying, we made a mistake.

                                    We did not start from a place of building a relationship. Some of the arguments have been kind of weak. One of the things that have been brought up is, but hey we’re doing all this education in the local schools. But then when pressed they admitted that those are the schools that astronomer’s kids are going to not the schools the local kids are going to, majority wise. There are some efforts with the indigenous people’s schools systems.

                                    And it’s this disproportionate, hey but look what we’re doing from the community that when you dig deeper you realize, oh that doesn’t mean what you think it means. That has a lot of people saying look, you guys you really just need to step back and figure out how do you build a relationship that’s built on respect and not on the yes but argument.

                                    Because the astronomers have really been trying to win this with the yes but, occasionally with the yes and. And not instead with let me sit down and listen. And the message I keep hearing is, we need to change this to, let me just sit down and listen.

Interviewer:                 And there was a great presentation from one of the conferences, was it Greg Chung?

Interviewee:                Yes.

Interviewer:                 He was from the University of Hawaii in Hilo and he said that – and he is native born Hawaiian, and he said that they had taken this step back and really had this opportunity to listen and to just understand from people, not what’s the solution, but just to understand what does the mountain mean to you? How does the mountain play into your personal/spiritual practices? What are the – what is your definition of a shared use of this mountain and what does that look like?

                                    And the thing that’s going to be really difficult is that different people have a different definition of what this is. Some people see the mountain as they have a very specific understanding of the mountain and how it plays into their spiritual beliefs, and this is the location of certain spiritual centers in the mountain.

                                    And for other people it’s just about I want to go up to the top of Mauna Kea and I want to experience the cosmos and not have all of this telescope pollution all around me.

                                    And then for other people it’s, this is where I hunt and I want to be able to roam around the mountain and feed my family and not have to come up against walls and fences and gates and told where I can and can’t go. So, those were some of the concerns where you could see that each individual person has a different definition of what they want from the mountain.

                                    So, you can see that because there’s so far apart, there’s no way you can go should we put the 30-meter telescope here or a little to the right or a little to the left. Is this okay? Does this resolve the deep 100 plus years of treachery and – it’s like, oh what a mess.

Interviewee:                And one of the things that makes all of this so difficult is there’s been years of astronomers basically shaking their heads and sometimes their fists and saying, well science just doesn’t matter to these people.

                                    And the people of the Polynesian culture are like, no that is so wrong. Astronomy is how the Polynesian culture was able to spread from the shores of New Zealand to Tahiti to the Hawaiian Islands.

                                    And to have this multi-hemisphere culture they had to understand the sky in a way that we look back and we’re like, oh we can’t accurately sail until we have watches. They figured out how to figure out what the Westerner’s didn’t know how to do.

                                    So they’re understanding and their cultural history is so tied to understanding the stars. This isn’t a matter of they don’t like astronomy. They’re out there using stillarium just like we are. This is how they teach people navigation now, is they use stillarium and planetariums to practice, because let’s face it, that’s safer than learning in the ocean.

Interviewer:                 Yeah, yeah, but definitely that the Polynesians culture is really rooted with this connection in the sky with the starts, with understanding the positions and the places. And being able to navigate using these beacons in the sky.

                                    So, it really is crazy that it’s almost like some of the world’s best astronomers should be coming from the Polynesian islands and yet, and especially because all these world class observatories are located here and yet there is this disconnect between the people from these islands getting to go to university, getting to gain experience come back home and do their research on this mountain and contribute to the science.

                                    And there’s a couple of statistics that were interesting. They were saying that maybe 25 percent of the people who work in the various facilities are native born Hawaiians.

Interviewee:                Which doesn’t mean that they’re fully of indigenous blood.

Interviewer:                 Right, just people born and raised in Hawaii.

Interviewee:                They were saying that the indigenous Polynesian heritage people are closer to about 6 percent, whereas island wide the average for the big island is more like 10 to 15 percent.

                                    So, they are underrepresented among their staff. What I would be interested in seeing is the separation between specialist and non-specialist staff because it would make sense that the PhD’s since there has never been a PhD granted in Hawaii to a native Hawaiian, that the PhD’s are clearly underrepresented.

                                    But what I am getting at is this nuanced problem. And the other things that got thrown around, that the astronomers are saying, yes but we put so much money into the local economy. We insert a million dollars into what we buy and sell and send our salaries.

Interviewer:                 They were saying 80 million in a year. Yeah, so when you look at the amount of money, they can spend on the islands from the various facilities it’s about $80 million a year. And then that percolates into the economy.

                                    And for sure, when you look at the construction of the telescope this multi-million/billion-dollar telescope, that’s a lot of local workers who are going to get jobs to build a telescope.

Interviewee:                But then they went on to point out that where you look at it as a percentage, and this is always where it gets tricky. So, if you look at what percentage is base science it’s super tiny for the US budget.

                                    Well if you look at the island economy to see what percentage of that is infused through scientific dollars through money being spent by the astronomers on the island, it’s a few percent. Whereas it turns out that things like tourism and the military really dominate in terms of economic impact.

Interviewer:                 Yeah, I think they said it went, it was tourism, military, goods –

Interviewee:                Agriculture.

Interviewer:                 Agriculture goods, and astronomy was way down the list of things people are contributors to the economy. So, I think that argument that astronomy is a big contributor to the economy is not that compelling to the people on the islands and they’re more interested in that.

                                    But it is very much like you’re seeing people protesting and there are plenty of people that are absolutely for the telescopes. It is definitely – what we’ve gotten a sense of here is it’s just divided. Some people are all for it. They love astronomy, they love the telescopes, they’re proud of the fact that world-class astronomy is happening on the island, and other people love the mountain and they don’t want any further development on it.

                                    And for other people they see it as just another example of Imperialism here on the island.

Interviewee:                And what we’ve heard consistently, just to bring this up one more time, is every single one of these groups have said one thing that was in common. And that was, why haven’t we built relationships? Where is the sitting down and communication from positions of respect instead of suing, that should have occurred between the astronomy community and the indigenous community?

Interviewer:                 Yeah, it’s really unfortunate that it’s gone so far through the courts and that now they’re having to come back around. And it looks like, for sure the protesters have made the people building the observatories take notice and take us very seriously.

                                    So, the protestors have had their affect that the law, that their challenge in the courts were not able to. And I think now we are going to see a better conversation happen. We’re definitely seeing a lot more publicity.

                                    I don’t know about you but every time I’ve logged into Twitter, every time I’ve logged into Twitter there has been some promotional ad telling me how good the telescopes are for the islands.

Interviewee:                And the thing that really got me, though, is all the different places this is cropping up into culture now. This is becoming the – well the last point of the battle for the indigenous people where even Jason Mamoa asked them to delay the filming of Aquaman 2 so that he could be part of the encampment that was limiting access to the mountain.

                                    And this goes so far beyond just impacting the construction of the 30-meter telescope. Yes, the lawsuits associated with the 30-meter telescope are ridiculously expensive. Yes, this is just burning bridges.

                                    But at the same time, the telescopes that have operated there for years and decades, they got shut down for a while. And so science has already been last. Relationships have already not been built. We are in a point of recovery even if the 30-meter telescope doesn’t get built.

                                    And they openly said that construction isn’t going to start any time soon. That they’re going to take a step back and see what can be rescued.

Interviewer:                 So, let’s talk a bit about what some of the options are moving forward. The alternative site in the Canary Islands. I saw a presentation here talking about the – just the suitability of the Canary Islands as a place for this telescope. And it’s not quite as good as Mauna Kea.

Interviewee:                It’s not as high. It’s not as dry. So, they won’t be able to do so much infrared work.

Interviewer:                 But there was a few other advantages. And I forget. There was some advantages in the air flow moving over the observatory in the Canary Islands because it’s actually a little better, I think if I understood this correctly.

                                    So, there are mostly disadvantages, there’s a couple of advantages, but the big advantage is there is no political issue when going – in going to the Canary Islands.

                                    Spain has already acquired all the permits, there’s absolute agreement from everybody on the Canary Islands.

Interviewee:                Mountains are not sacred.

Interviewer:                 Yeah, there. And they are perfectly happy to have the developments go ahead. So, they are fairly confident that if that’s the decision that gets made that it’s just not – in the end it’s just not going to work here in Hawaii, they can go to the Canary Islands and achieve almost all of their science objectives from that location as well.

Interviewee:                And one of the things that needs to be noted about doing it at Mauna Kea is if that is what ends up happening according to the court documents so far, they need to shut down five observatories that already exist.

                                    So far they’ve identified two for shut down, the Cal Tech millimeter array which kind of stabbed me in the heart because when that was built the University of Texas had to shut down their millimeter telescope to pay for Cal Tech to happen. So that’s a still useful, still powerful telescope although it’s been largely over run by Alma’s capabilities. The other telescope they’d be shutting down is well a teaching facility.

Interviewer:                 So, I think that you will see – the bigger concern of course, is what happens down the road. The leases expire in –

Interviewee:                ’33.

Interviewer:                 In 2033 and so they’re still in the process now of trying to renegotiate the continuation of the facilities from beyond 2033. But that’s still an unknown. So, I think we’re going to find out if things don’t go well that way then it’s going to be a whole other, man, completely new negotiation.

Interviewee:                And one of the things at looking at this is currently the University of Hawaii is taking on the chin pretty much all the costs associated with security, with just maintaining the basic infrastructure that’s needed to allow all the rest of the observatories to exist.

                                    The University of Hawaii is of course paying that $1 a year lease. Now if the lease now goes up in costs, that’s not something the University of Hawaii can take up on their own. So, how do we as a community, well, make this a fairer place for all the observatories? The phrase charging rent came up and no one was in favor of that.

Interviewer:                 Yeah, can you imagine what rent would be on top of a mountain. So, at this point I think everything is stalled, but at least they’ve stopped construction efforts. The protests have stopped. People are able to go up the mountain to do science and they’re now – it looks like the conversations that should have been happening a long time ago are happening more in earnest and hopefully they’ll come to some kind of settlement outside of the courts to be able to continue construction.

Interviewee:                And while a lot of people aren’t in their hearts saying, well we need to build relationships. At least the party line is, we need to build a relationship and sometimes faking it until you make it can change your heart. So, I’m one of the people that’s hoping that a real relationship can be built, that does benefit the indigenous people, that does keep the mountain open while also allowing the science to continue.

Interviewer:                 And this is going to be an issue for all the future observatories. When you think about things like the square kilometer array that we’re entering the realm of these mega-telescopes, that you’re going to need a big chunk of land to get your science done. That these things are going to be orders of magnitude larger and more infrastructure required. And that means you’re going to have a bigger impact both environmentally as well as just on everybody in your people’s land.

                                    You’ve got to realize that if you’re going to try to do some of this big science, which we all want them to do, you’ve got to make sure you take everybody’s opinions into account.

Interviewee:                And astronomy has a history of periodically being able to figure out how to do this very well. With the very large array in New Mexico, in the United States. They figured out, well we can put the railroad tracks out, move the telescopes around, and still allow cows to graze there.

                                    So occasionally a telescope gets taken down by a cow using it as a back scratcher, but that’s rare, really funny, and the farmers and astronomers found a way to both use the land. We need to find a way here, to, yet again, both use the land.

Interviewer:                 All right, well thanks Pamela. We will – I will talk to you in a moment about the other controversial topic that we had here at the AAS meeting, so we’ll see you next week in five minutes.

Interviewee:                Yes, that’s exactly what’s going to happen, and I’m so sorry I don’t have our Patrion names with us. I will be providing that audio to Suzie later. But Patrion people know that we love you. We survive by you. And if you out there watching right now are not supporting us on Patrion I want to see the show continue. Please consider checking us out at patrion.com/astronomycast.

Suzie:                          Hi everyone, this is producer Suzie, and I’d like to read the Patrion names for this episode. We would like to thanks Bill Nash. Richard and Gary William Berklove for supporting us. Thank you once again for being wonderful patrons.

Computer:                   Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, a nonprofit resource provided by the Planetary Science Institute. Frazier Cane, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at Astronomy Cast. You can email us at info@astronomycast.com. Tweet us @astronomycast. Like us on Facebook and watch us on YouTube. We record our show live on YouTube every Friday at 3 PM EST, 12 PM PST, or 1900 UTC. Our intro music was provided by David Joseph Wesley the outro music is by Travis Sorrow and the show was edited by Suzie Murph.

[End of Audio]

Duration: 30 minutes

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