University of Hawaii astronomy professor Paul Coleman, the first Native Hawaiian to earn a doctorate in astrophysics and an outspoken supporter of the Thirty Meter Telescope, has died at the age of 62.
Coleman died suddenly and unexpectedly Jan. 16. The cause of death was unavailable.
Services were held Thursday at the First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu.
“It’s a big loss for us,” said Robert McLaren, interim director of the UH Institute for Astronomy. “He was one of our best undergraduate instructors, and he was a mentor to many. He will be irreplaceable.”
For the last 16 years, Coleman was a strong advocate for astronomy in Hawaii, but his profile gained more stature in recent years as he became a vocal supporter of the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope.
In a 2015 interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Coleman said it was his belief most Native Hawaiians support the $1.4 billion project planned near the summit of Mauna Kea.
He said he was proud to carry on the Hawaiian tradition of studying the stars. The ancient Hawaiians explored the Pacific and made early discoveries while putting to use a real-world application of astronomy, he said.
The astronomer said he was excited at the prospect of operating a telescope with a mirror nearly three times larger than any other on Earth. With that kind of power, he said, the TMT could find signs of life in other solar systems and discover clues to the origins of the universe.
“Our alii would have said it was crazy (to block the TMT). They would have said to take advantage of this opportunity,” he said. “To move into the modern world gives honor to our ancestors.”
The Saint Louis School graduate received his bachelor’s degree in physics at the University of Notre Dame and his doctorate in physics at the University of Pittsburgh.
His career in astronomy sent him to the Netherlands for nearly a decade and then back to the United States to teach at New Mexico Tech, Yale University and the University of Puerto Rico before returning home in 2002.
During his decade and a half with the UH astronomy institute, Coleman was front and center in education and public outreach. He spoke across the state about astronomy and its importance to Hawaii, and he led numerous groups on tours of the observatories atop Haleakala and Mauna Kea.
He was a member of panels dedicated to increasing Native Hawaiian participation in the sciences, and he was a longtime adviser to the Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo. He also served on the state’s Hawaiian lexicon committee to help create new Hawaiian words in the arena of science.
“Paul provided an invaluable bridge between the astronomy community and the Native Hawaiian community,” said Roy Gal, UH associate astronomer. He was “a two-way bridge, showing how these communities share a great deal culturally and scientifically, and how we can work together to the benefit of all.”
He is survived by his wife, D. Dianne Bowen-Coleman, and by daughters Catherine Hali‘amemaheaikekai Bowen Coleman and Elizabeth Noheahinali‘imauliola Bowen Coleman.
A GoFundMe account has been started to help Coleman’s daughters continue their college educations.
Coleman is also survived by father William Edward Coleman; brothers William Jr. and Michael; and sisters Ka‘ala Coleman and Manu Ka‘iama.