POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Feb 13, 2011
What does the choice of Mauna Kea for the site of one of the world's largest and clearest windows to the universe mean to all of us here in Hawaii?
Humans have sought for thousands of years to understand the cosmos: its extent and structure, how it relates to us now and in our future. And with new knowledge, we ask again: Is there other life out there?
Deep philosophic questions, ranging from "hard science" to theology, look to the cosmos for answers — often finding them in a pinpoint image or in a priceless spectrum from one of the incredible astronomical instruments on Mauna Kea, offering us the clearest cosmic view anywhere on Earth. And with this incomparable gift of nature, we have a problem — man-made, to be sure, but troublesome. A small segment of Hawaii's population objects to the construction and operation on Mauna Kea of a magnificent new instrument: an optical telescope nearly 100 feet in diameter that surely will make astronomic history for many years to come.
Why should the Thirty Meter Telescope be on Mauna Kea rather than some other mountain site?
"The atmospheric conditions, low average temperatures, and very low humidity will open an exciting new discovery space using adaptive optics and infrared observations," said Edward Stone, chairman of the TMT board, which comprises 16 leading scientists from seven universities and the University of Hawaii.
The almost-magic skills of science have brought us details of interstellar chemistry, finding in outer space the basic compounds that are the building blocks of all life here on Earth, including every atom of our bodies and surroundings that are fragments of long-dead stars and their precursors. These sciences have greatly enriched the human intellect with a vast array of new questions that as sentient beings and in the spirit of the scientific genius of the past, we must still try to answer.
Clearly much of the astronomical world has decided to trust the infra- structure of Hawaii with one of its greatest citadels of learning, culturally comparable to the medieval cathedrals of Europe that embraced and celebrated human achievement. There was no fuss about the aesthetics of the skyline then; beauty and human accomplishment were one.
The telescope will be beautiful in its own way, with a bonus of unparalleled educational value.
The several cultures of Hawaii may see this endeavor somewhat differently. Interestingly, one of the most influential figures in the development of Mauna Kea's observatories was Alika Herring, a part-Hawaiian scientist, recently deceased. This remarkable man, an expert in moon mapping, was one of the world's most skillful telescope artisans. In 1964, with university support, he spent many long, frigid nights on Mauna Kea with his own superb optics to assess the mountaintop's seeing qualities. With his hand-made telescope and meticulous observations, Herring opened to the world Mauna Kea's window on the universe.
The astronomical aura of Mauna Kea, which certainly began in early Hawaiian times, has in our era spawned astonishing scientific developments.
One might hope that all of Hawaii's interest groups will understand that the world shares their deep appreciation of the mountain as a sacred and beautiful entity. How it might be changed by the telescope is the issue. But considering the enormous advantages this awesome instrument will bring, perhaps it is not too much to expect that various cultural views of this instrument can be merged.