Broadening Our Lens

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As students at the University of California, one of the world’s leaders in public research, we can agree that scientific research has value. The UC is renowned for its work in many fields, and its discoveries in astronomy have been especially influential due to the strength of UC-owned and operated telescopes and observatories. Its latest and arguably biggest astronomical project, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), is not an example of which we should be proud.

At its core, science is meant to better society, but at whose expense? Though the UC prides itself on its inclusivity, it failed in the case of the TMT.

For over a decade, UC personnel like UCSC astronomy professor Michael Bolte and UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Henry Yang have been involved in a project to build the world’s largest telescope, the TMT. Because of its unprecedented size, the TMT’s resolution would be “more than 12 times sharper than what is achieved by the Hubble Space Telescope,” which was previously the most revolutionary telescope in terms of high-resolution imagery.

The TMT would allow astronomers to study galaxy formation since the beginning of time and the creation of black holes, as well as observing planets around distant stars, according to its website. Other key research institutions like the California Institute of Technology and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan were part of the telescope’s board, contributing to a fund of over $1.4 billion.

Illustration by Owen Thomas
Illustration by Owen Thomas

However, the TMT project sparked controversy when the board decided to build it on the summit of Mauna Kea, a sacred mountain in Hawaii. Mauna Kea was chosen as the location because its peak would provide a clear view of the sky for 300 days a year, allowing astronomers to see 13 billion light years away. To Hawaiians, however, Mauna Kea is an integral part of culture and folklore and is considered the physical form of the gods.

On Dec. 2, the Hawaiian Supreme Court revoked the permit to build the TMT because it found that Hawaii’s Board of Land and Natural Resources had issued the permit wrongfully in 2011 without any forum for people to discuss their concerns with the telescope’s construction. Since April 2015, protesters have been involved in direct action aimed at halting construction on the mountain. According to a New York Times article, opponents of the telescope said that it violated rules for industrial development on the Big Island because it would have been 18 stories high — making it the biggest building on the island.

This isn’t the first instance of Hawaiian history and culture being pushed aside in the interest of expansion — whether political or scientific. In 1893, the Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown by the U.S. government, and from then on the interests of the Hawaiian people have been largely ignored by the colonial superpower under a similar guise of bettering society. Native Hawaiians are still recovering from the destruction of cultural heritage that their people have experienced, which includes a ban on Hawaiian language and the removal of people from their homes to build the tourist industry.

There are already 13 telescopes on Mauna Kea, including two 10-meter Keck telescopes that are owned and operated by the UC, and many are in disrepair or out of use. Moreover, the TMT would have been the largest telescope in the world for only a short period of time; the European Extremely Large Telescope — currently being built in northern Chile — will soon surpass the TMT in size. While Yang acknowledged the legitimacy of people’s concerns about the telescope’s placement in a formal statement, he also said the TMT committee is still deliberating  whether to apply for a new permit or not.

The problem isn’t with the telescope itself, but with the TMT board’s failure to consult with the Hawaiians who would be affected both environmentally and culturally by its construction. By neglecting to do so, their actions are perpetuating neo-colonialism, putting their own interests in front of the native Hawaiians by desecrating their cultural monuments.

“This is a very simple case about land use,” said Kealoha Pisciotta, a spokesperson for Mauna Kea Hui which is a group that brought the suit against the telescope in a New York Times article. “It’s not science versus religion.”

Though the power of the telescope and its potential for scientific discoveries are both indisputable, the decision to construct it on the summit of Mauna Kea is irresponsible and clearly problematic. Even though the permit was revoked in this case, it highlights the need for the scientific community to educate themselves on the cultural and historical significance of the locations  in which they plan to do research and work with locals  to ensure that their work will benefit everyone. While most scientists have good intentions in pursuing their research, they need to evaluate whether or not their actions have damaging consequences for people living in surrounding areas.