The price of discovery

by Ethan Ward


Hawaii is almost universally seen as a tropical paradise, but it has much more than its natural beauty to offer. Native Hawaiians who continue to follow the traditional religion see their islands as a manifestation of divinity on Earth. Astronomers, on the other hand, see it as the gateway to the cosmos. 

There’s really no place in the world like Mauna Kea, the dormant volcano which marks the peak of Hawaii’s Big Island, for a number of reasons. Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano and the highest point in the state of Hawaii, is unique for a number of reasons. For astronomy, the most important of these reasons include incredibly low light pollution, reduced blurring atmospheric effects, and consistent weather for observing. It is from this special place that we have learned more about worlds beyond than anywhere else on our planet. 

The summit is also unique in a spiritual context, so much so, that it has been dubbed a ‘region of the gods’ by the Native Hawaiian religion. It’s here that we are in limbo between preserving a site out of respect for the native population’s cultural significance or further developing it as a window to a future we can’t yet imagine. These two unquantifiable pillars of importance have led the respective communities of Native Hawaiians and astronomers to rally around this site as the cornerstone of a way forward for the relationship of scientific research in Hawaii. 

The history of Hawaii and its role in the United States since is an important factor in this discussion. Hawaii was an independent island nation until 1893, when it became a constitutional monarchy. In 1893, a USMC supported coup lead by American expats and sugar planters ousted Queen Liliuokalani and began the process of making Hawaii a US territory (“Hawaii Becomes 50th State.”, 2009). This meant that there was a thousand years for the native religion to evolve from its polynesian roots and become uniquely intertwined with the island before US intervention. The president of the Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, Kealoha Pisciotta, previously remarked, “Hawaii was never acquired lawfully…Culturally the land lives, and we’re related to it. We’re all connected, even if there’s no science that can prove that” (LaFrance 2015). The heart of the protests today echo back to the colonial origins of Hawaii’s statehood and the religious significance of Hawaiian land more than anything else. 

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), proposed to be located on Mauna Kea, has amplified the voices of Pisciotta and others viewing it a statement regarding Hawaiian sovereignty, rather than as just another telescope. There is no simple solution when science and religion disagree on a way forward. Involving politics only further muddies these waters. The crux of the conflict over Mauna Kea is intriguing on a fundamental level because it revolves around two groups of people who view the mountain in two very different ways, yet who ultimately want the same thing. That is, both desire this special place that grounds their outlook on the world. One perspective is beyond our perceptions while the other is based in them. This is what makes the topic polarizing, in my opinion. Support of one side boils down to a worldview, however, this doesn’t mean that the two worldviews cannot exist together as they have been proven to in the past.

The TMT aims take a sustainable role in the community of the Big Island, much like the Keck Observatory has been. The Keck Observatory is one of the most advanced observatories on the planet due to its use of new technologies, such as adaptive optics, and its advantageous placement on top of Mauna Kea. Its monumental accomplishments in the field of astronomy include pinpointing the center of the galaxy, measuring the dark energy fueled growth of the universe, and capturing the first image of an exoplanet solar system (Howell, 2013). Alongside this work, Keck has become a pillar of the community surrounding Mauna Kea with numerous educational, outreach and workforce development programs. For example, the Mauna Kea Scholars program reserves observation time for local high school students and Keck has been the largest benefactor of the Akamai Workforce Initiative by bringing in forty-two members (“Workforce Development.”, 2019). The Akamai Workforce Initiative is a program that offers opportunities for traditionally underrepresented populations to participate in scientific development. It is also one of the few organizations on the island that values and achieves proportional representation of Native Hawaiians, as they make up 24% of its workforce (Akamai Internship Program Outcomes, 2018). In comparison to Keck, TMT has much more community funding and has started down a similar path of community engagement. The project has already begun its planned annual funding to the THINK fund (currently providing $5.1 million to fund education on the island) on top of the hundreds of millions of dollars that will be going to Hawaiian construction companies (“Home.”, 2019). The benefits of the TMT aren’t limited to the discoveries it promises. In seeking a mutually beneficial relationship with the community of the Big Island, TMT’s establishment guarantees funding for STEM in local schools, employment ranging from construction to data analysis, and providing $1 million a year to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Office of Maunakea Management (Thirty Meter Telescope). Furthermore, the decade’s worth of planning that has gone into the site aims to make TMT the most sustainable telescope on Mauna Kea, if not the world. The sustainability and energy efficiency of this site highlights the high standards it holds itself to as a hub of scientific research and as a cornerstone of Mauna Kea’s surrounding community. 

Some protesters have expressed concern that science would be used as a new way to develop areas previously promised to lie solely in the community’s hands. Cliff Kapono, chemist and member of the recent protests, expressed, “If we continue to develop the places we say we are going to protect, soon we will have nothing left. If these actions continued to be unchecked, it is only a matter of time before our coastlines are up for grabs and it’s going to be very tragic if ‘science’ becomes the reason for it all” (Housman 2019).  A potential compromise would be to set a limit on the landmass that can be developed, much like Costa Rica has done to protect its natural biodiversity. Costa Rica, about twice the size of Hawaii, has been able to triple its GDP while doubling the amount of protected environmental regions (5 Ways Costa Rica Leads in Sustainability). In this way, the slippery slope outlook would be addressed with hard limits on expansion and the unique opportunity that the TMT has to revolutionize ground based astronomy could be realized to its full potential. 

To get an idea of how powerful this telescope is, let’s look at one of the key specifications for any telescope, the angular resolution. In an astronomical context, angular resolution is just a measure of how detailed objects appear when you look up into the night sky. Since a larger diameter telescope means better angular resolution, bigger is better. The TMT will have 12 times the resolution than that of the Hubble Space Telescope (“Thirty Meter Telescope.”, 2019). That’s a mindblowing statement considering it has a filter to overcome that Hubble doesn’t, the atmosphere. Again, this is why Mauna Kea is such a critical location for the telescope. There is truly nowhere else on the globe that is so isolated from light pollution and terrestrial weather patterns, making Mauna Kea the perfect location for detailed astronomical observations. TMT will also have the capability of viewing objects from the UV to mid-infrared wavelengths, which gives valuable information about the chemical composition of a star and how the gasses in exoplanet atmospheres are mixed (“Thirty Meter Telescope.”, 2019). Ultimately, the TMT will allow astronomers to study black holes, dark matter, exoplanets and nebulae in detail that has never before been possible on our planet. 

Overall, what becomes of the TMT is up to the voters of Hawaii. Though a majority (3:1) have shown support for this project, this statistic was from a year ago and people’s opinions change (“News about TMT in Hawaii.”, 2019). One of the most complicated parts of this debate is that both sides are dealing with an inherited history, of which, none of the individuals involved today could have had any role in. Hawaii has a history of being one of the greatest astronomical sites in the world. It has also has a history as a conquered island nation. The complexities that lie in the stance against intervention by non-native Hawaiians to the island and the desire to see Hawaii as a bridge to the cosmos are far beyond this brief discussion. 

It’s not often that this happens, but similar to climate change, the building of the TMT on Mauna Kea has entangled science and politics. The TMT continues to have wide support among the voters of the Big Island, but importantly still sees a near 50/50 split among voters that identify as ethnically Hawiian (“Thirty Meter Telescope.”, 2019). Decisions being made with moving forward need to take this into account and continue to address concerns in any way there is to guarantee a strong relationship between scientific research and the duality of cultural and historical importance that Mauna Kea holds. 


Works Cited

Akamai Internship Program Outcomes. (2018).  Retrieved from

5 Ways Costa Rica Leads in Sustainability. (2019, October 21). Retrieved from

Hawaii becomes 50th state. (2009, November 24). Retrieved from

Home. (2019, September 8). Retrieved from

Housman, J. (2019, July 24). What You Should Know About the Protest of a Giant Telescope in Hawaii. Retrieved from

Howell, E. (2013, March 15). 10 Amazing Space Discoveries by the Keck Observatory. Retrieved from

LaFrance, S. by A. (2015, October 30). What Makes a Volcano Sacred? Retrieved from

News about TMT in Hawaii. (2019). Retrieved from

Thirty Meter Telescope. (2019). Retrieved from

Workforce Development. (2019). Retrieved from

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