A large demonstration was recently held at the University of Hawaii at Manoa to protest the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea. Protestors lined Dole Street all the way from the School for Hawaiian Knowledge to the Founder’s Gate. Drivers honked their horns in solidarity. A lot of people were happy, but as a professor at the university, my heart was broken by this anti-science, anti-knowledge protest in the middle of campus.

Of course, this movement is not limited to the university campus. To my surprise and dismay, I find that many of my friends in Hawaii oppose the TMT. My social media environment is flooded with protest against the telescope. Influential high school and middle school teachers that I know are encouraging their students and their colleagues to oppose it. Protests are being held on the mountain itself. The governor has suspended construction for more review. Frankly, I am stunned and discouraged.

Visitor makes a photograph of the various telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea. 9 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A visitor takes a photograph of the various telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Some of my friends have warned me off of engaging in this debate. I am not Hawaiian, after all. I have not really been kamaaina for all that long (eight years), so I should stay out of it, right?

Sorry, but I respectfully disagree. There is a parallel debate in the scientific community about how much scientists should become involved in policy issues. We have traditionally stayed out of such things, but every scientist should see clearly by now that we must not remain above the fray, because the anti-science, anti-knowledge movement in our culture will sink us all if allowed to continue uncontested.

I have a dual life as an actor and a scientist. As an actor, I have worked in my own way with Mai Poina and Kumu Kahua Theatre to bring the shameful story of Hawaii’s takeover to a larger audience. But as a scientist, I can not stay silent about my disappointment with the widespread opposition to the TMT, especially opposition among students who, after all, are in the unbelievably privileged position of being knowledge seekers.

I will say right up front and in no uncertain terms that I think Hawaii was stolen from its people by the United States. I think it’s a reasonable argument that the Kingdom of Hawaii still exists by international law. There is no question that the Hawaiian culture was purposely suppressed and that the islands have been desecrated by America and the American companies that made their fortunes here.

I understand that this violence continues in the form of relentless building of resorts, suburbs, and condos. I see the disadvantage that Native Hawaiians suffer, like indigenous peoples in all situations that were subject to ruthless colonization. I understand that Hawaiians want to take a stand against further oppression.

But the TMT is not about any of that. Striking out against it won’t do anything to help the Hawaiian people, and embracing its mission, I believe, would be well within the proud tradition of Hawaii’s ancestors.

Astronomy is one of the most basic sciences. Human beings will almost certainly never be able to reach the objects which have become visible through modern telescopes. These objects are so distant that we are seeing them as they were before humans even existed — before our planet existed — and humans will probably be gone for good by the time the energy which these objects are currently emitting reaches our solar system.

The knowledge gained from this telescope is not about Hawaiians, or Westerners, or any other branch of the human family. It is about all humans and their astonishing ability to discover how the universe works. It is the continuing story of what we humans have been doing since we first looked into the sky and wondered what it was all about.

Polynesians looked to the sky to guide them across the Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands in the first place. Knowledge of the heavens was central to ancestral Hawaiians, both as a practical matter to guide voyages and as a philosophical and cosmological matter to explain the origins and workings of the world.

Hawaiian’s have sought knowledge about the origins of the world from the sky for millennia. The sky, Wakea, after all, was the father of the world. Maui’s fish hook, which Westerners call the constellation Scorpio, was used to pull the Hawaiian Islands from the sea. As with all cultures, ancestral Hawaiians sought from the sky myriad stories about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. The TMT is no different in its goal to pull stories about the origins of the universe out of the sky.

It is the continuing story of what we humans have been doing since we first looked into the sky and wondered what it was all about.

As it turns out, the top of Mauna Kea is one of the few places on Earth appropriate for a telescope like TMT. If it is a special and sacred place, then this is one of the things that makes it so.

What did Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last royal descendant of King Kamehameha, do with her estate? She created an endowment for the Kamehameha Schools. She thought that furthering education and knowledge was the most important legacy that she could leave for Hawaii’s people. She could never have imagined the kinds of discoveries that the summit of Mauna Kea can yield, and I can not believe that she would protest the building of this instrument which is dedicated to furthering knowledge.

Finally, I ask Hawaiian protestors and their sympathizers not to play into the anti-intellectual movement that is currently sweeping our country. At every turn we have politicians denying facts that matter to the very future of our planet. In schools we have legislators changing biology and history textbooks to fit their ideologies in opposition to the consensus of the relevant scientific and academic communities.

I look in admiration at the kings and queens who ruled in the latter period of the Hawaiian monarchy as they struggled to bring their kingdom into the modern world. They valued education. They sought knowledge. They looked to the future and not to the past. I wanted to cry when I saw university students, our future, protesting the construction of an instrument unique in its ability to further our understanding of the universe.

Yes, a grievous miscarriage of justice was committed here. But how does stopping the development of the TMT help? There has been careful consultation and negotiation. There is no commercial exploitation here. There is no hegemonic agenda here. There is no large-scale environmental impact here.

The instruments at the top of Mauna Kea are some of our best connections with the cosmos. They embody our greatest characteristics as a species: curiosity and the ability to observe, reason about, and understand things far beyond our immediate needs. They help us understand who we are and why we are here in a manner unprecedented in history.

And by “us,” I mean humans — everyone. I would like to see Hawaii, and Hawaiians, be proud of the special place they have in humanity’s quest for knowledge.

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