Should construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope be a formal topic of discussion at the world’s largest astronomical gathering?
For leaders of the International Astronomical Association, the answer so far has been a resounding “No.”
Controversy surrounding the TMT is a local problem and must be addressed at a local level, IAU Deputy General Piero Benvenuti said this week. If protesters wanted to make a presentation at the conference, which started Monday at the Hawaii Convention Center, they should have submitted a proposal during the planning stages — about a year and a half ago, he said.
That’s a stance that the protesters have been pushing against unsuccessfully for months.
The IAU turned down a request by leaders of the protest movement to address the conference or participate in a formal public discussion with IAU leadership. Now the protesters are offering an invitation directly to visiting astronomers: March with us to Kapiolani Park on Sunday to learn something about the land hosting your conference and some of your telescopes.
“We want to show astronomers the true meaning of aloha,” said Lanakila Mangauil, one of the organizers of the march. “The idea of aloha is a face-to-face exchange of breath. It’s a dialogue. We want to share that with them so they can understand where we are coming from.”
The Aloha Aina Unity March is set to start at 10 a.m. Sunday at Saratoga Road in Waikiki, and end at Kapiolani Park, where there will be food, music and presentations.
“I suspect these astronomers who say they are only doing science are probably having problems with indigenous people from around the world, because mountains are generally sacred to indigenous people.” — Lilikala Kameeleihiwa, University of Hawaii professor
Construction of the $1.4 billion TMT observatory was slated to begin earlier this spring atop Mauna Kea, but was halted after protests erupted on the mountain and spread across the state.
The mountain, which is sacred in Hawaiian culture, is already the site of 13 existing observatories and the University of Hawaii has a troubled history of stewardship there.
“The land is our grandmother,” said Lilikala Kameeleihiwa, University of Hawaii professor and director of the Hawaiian Studies Center. Caring for the land, or malama aina, is “one of the basic tenets of Hawaiian philosophy and culture. If we don’t protect the land then we are not Hawaiian anymore. This is kind of a defining moment.”
TMT will be the biggest and most advanced telescope on the mountain, with nine times the collecting area of current telescopes on Mauna Kea. Astronomers say that can help them in the quest to find planets that can sustain life forms and allow them to peer farther back into the history of the universe.
Last month, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources passed an emergency rule aimed at cracking down on protesters camping on the Mauna Kea, after protesters placed rocks and boulders in the access road and successfully halted construction crews from reaching the site.
Sunday’s event is not focused solely on TMT or Mauna Kea, but is expected to draw representatives from a range of groups concerned about various land preservation and cultural heritage issues.
“The point is to focus attention on what the public really wants and needs for there to be a reasonable life in Hawaii,” said University of Hawaii Professor Jonathan Osorio, one of the march organizers.
The world’s largest association of astronomers has said for months that it will not weigh in on the controversy.
TMT protesters argue that the issue has international implications and should be an important agenda item for an organization that helps set goals and agendas for the astronomical community.
Astronomers say the TMT can help them in the quest to find planets that can sustain life forms and allow them to peer farther back into the history of the universe.
“I suspect these astronomers who say they are only doing science are probably having problems with indigenous people from around the world, because mountains are generally sacred to indigenous people,” Kameeleihiwa said. “I think this is probably a problem everywhere.”
Benvenuti said that IAU leaders are still open to meeting with TMT protesters to learn more about the issue, but nothing formal has been arranged.
The ongoing battle to block construction of TMT might not be the topic of a formal presentation, but it is being widely discussed among astronomers in attendance.
Some from outside of Hawaii — who have been hearing about TMT for 20 years through the lens of science — are just now coming to grips with the depth of the issue here, said Jonathan Williams, an astronomer from UH’s Institute for Astronomy.
Williams was one of just a few astronomers at the conference who came outside Tuesday to watch a press conference by TMT protesters announcing the planned march.
After it concluded, he walked over to Mangauil to share a quiet conversation. Williams supports TMT, he said, but hopes that moving forward the two sides can find a way to work together.
It’s one-on-one conversations with astronomers, Mangauil said later, that Sunday’s march will hopefully facilitate.
“We are not here to protest the conference. We have no problem with astronomy,” Mangauil said, adding that the issue wasn’t even with the TMT itself but rather “the poor choice of location” for the telescope.
The march is planned for Sunday, Osorio said, because it’s a day off for astronomers in the middle of the 11-day event.