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The Pale Blue Dot and Our Drive to Understand What Lies Beyond
There are very few things for which humanity will put aside our differences in order to work together. Giant telescopes, designed with the sole intent of providing us with the ability to observe, study and understand more about our universe, represent an example of these rare efforts.

About the Author

  • William Montgomerie
    William Montgomerie
    William Montgomerie grew up on the Big Island. Inspired by astronomy on Mauna Kea, he studied Astronomy and Physics at UH Hilo. William now spends more than 120 nights a year on Mauna Kea’s summit, where he collects observations to help us better understand the universe and our place in it.

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

Mauna Kea Thirty Meter Telescope

An artist’s concept of the Thirty Meter Telescope observatory on Mauna Kea.

Courtesy TMT International Observatory

“The earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” — Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

Carl Sagan’s timeless quote, along with that remarkable image of Earth captured by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, decades ago, from the edge of our solar system, never ceases to inspire and amaze me. It has quite possibly had a more humbling effect on me than anything else I have ever experienced and dare I say, may yet experience.

There are very few things for which humanity will put aside our differences, our politics, the lines we draw on our maps, in order to work together, collaboratively, productively and selflessly. Giant telescopes, designed with the sole intent of providing us with the ability to observe, study and understand more about the unquantifiable vastness that is our known universe, represent an example of these rare efforts.

As one such endeavor, the Thirty Meter Telescope provides this opportunity to collaborate on a project representing the technical achievements of our species. Once completed, it offers to provide nothing more than knowledge and understanding. Is that enough? Roughly $1.4 billion dollars worth of investments from universities and countries spanning the globe say it is.

These are not investments designed for financial profit. No country or individual will get rich by way of this project. The money will never be seen by them again. What the world is “buying” here is nothing more than an opportunity to learn more about the cosmos than existing infrastructure currently permits.

Why spend all this money constructing such a facility without the possibility of financial gain, when the world we have created seems to revolve around the need for gain? In my opinion, the reason is traced back to a quintessential spirit of exploration, seemingly ingrained in humankind since the beginning of our existence. Exploring the universe is no different than our past explorations of Earth. Today, a giant telescope is a technological tool for exploration, just as the sole under foot, saddle on horse or ship at sea were for history’s explorers. Furthermore, there is plenty of support for the notion that exploration of the universe can directly benefit how we understand and care for ourselves and this pale blue planet.

The Thirty Meter Telescope has been in planning stages for seven years. During that time, the organization has impressed me with its dedication to the community it will be affecting.

Of all the places explorers have discovered on Earth, Mauna Kea is the best site for a telescope like the TMT to be constructed. It is very difficult to provide a compelling argument stating otherwise. In addition to the spiritual importance of Mauna Kea to the Hawaiians, the rarity of the mountain’s astronomical environment only makes the place more special, to more people.

I think everyone agrees that Mauna Kea is incredibly unique and significant and that we must ensure that stewardship of the mountain is both environmentally responsible and culturally respectful. I would like to see all of the enthusiasm and energy surrounding the TMT controversy be redirected toward getting everyone working together to improve stewardship practices, rather than flat out opposing the TMT organization and its construction plans.

The Thirty Meter Telescope has been in planning stages for seven years. During that time, the organization has impressed me with its dedication to the community it will be affecting. Planners have put a large amount of effort into listening to and addressing our concerns regarding the mountain. There have been many things done wrong in the history of astronomy on Mauna Kea, as there have been during the history of humans in Hawaii, and on Earth, but the TMT organization is trying its best to do things right. We should be helping to do it right, and joining the world in celebrating that unbounded spirit of exploration and discovery, not unconditionally opposing constructing one of humanity’s greatest achievements atop one of Earth’s tallest mountains.

I could be called “just a haole from the mainland,” and all of my point of view discounted, as often happens in Hawaii. I am, after all. But I moved to Hawaii when I was young, without a say in the decision. I have grown up here. My education and best friends came from a small, rural school on the slopes of Mauna Kea. My aspirations and dreams developed there, with the help of many inspiring teachers, as a direct result of the presence Mauna Kea’s astronomy has in Hawaii. I attended university in Hilo where I studied Astronomy and Physics with the intent of some day working at a telescope on Mauna Kea. Tonight, here I am, putting into writing my perspective from almost 14,000 feet above sea level, inside one of the world’s largest telescopes where I am now employed to collect data for astronomers across the globe.

I have come to love Hawaii. My life here has given me a deep environmental awareness — an appreciation for the fragility of unique ecosystems like those found in abundance on this isolated little Big Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I have also lived immersed in a culture that owes its existence to exploration and discovery, one that lived by astronomy, using the stars and moon for navigation across the ocean, and for calendars which directed when to plant and harvest, when to fish, when to go to war, and when not to. I, too, feel protective of Maunakea and this island I call home.

But the knowledge and understanding that we gain from astronomy have taught us something very important — that there is always a bigger picture. In my picture, the fragile, unique ecosystem is us — all of us and every living thing we know of — and the isolated island is Earth, that pale blue dot in the great enveloping cosmic dark which we humans, by our very nature, are driven to explore and understand.