I’ve been quiet on the TMT controversy not through choice but because it erupted while I was traveling, and because it’s an important topic that needs more than a tweet to discuss.
Let me begin by saying that I love astronomy and science—but I also understand the heritage and cultural importance of Maunakea to the people of Hawaii.
As a POC (Malagasy-Indian, and from Reunion island), I question the way we have, and are currently, handling this situation. True, the people behind the TMT have been patient, taken lots of time, and gone to enormous pains to complete all the paperwork necessary to certify the project. They have also attended countless hearings to make the project better and more respectful of both the environment and Hawaiian culture. I admire my colleagues at the TMT who worked around the clock to improve the project—they did the best they could under trying circumstances, and they listened very carefully to the people of Hawaii and their policy makers.
How can we possibly justify the arrest of peaceful protectors? What are we saying about our project and about astronomy at large if the world sees us calling on a militarized police force to arrest people who disagree with us? Doesn’t this confirm the allegation made against us that we believe scientists and science are always right, and our opponents are not only wrong but don’t even deserve our respect?
In a world driven by social media, where videos and images are important and where controversies can explode at any moment, I don’t understand the decision to send military force to arrest people, repeating once again the sin of using raw power against indigenous, Black, and brown communities in the US.
This needs to stop.
Maunakea is a beautiful and unique mountain, a true gem for astronomy. I have worked there and made lots of great discoveries using its telescopes. I am also extremely grateful for the opportunity to go to Hawaii to meet my friends and colleagues. It’s a place where native Hawaiians, mainland Americans, and immigrants learn to live and work together. That’s the true Spirit of Aloha—and it’s one of the most wonderful and precious aspects of life in Hawaii.
However, with our eyes on the prize and a race underway for ever-bigger and more numerous telescopes on Maunakea, I fear we have forgotten that we are guests. We have been invited into someone else’s home. And we are returning extraordinary hospitality by trampling on sacred traditions. When Hawaiians tell us that enough is enough, we need to listen. The view embraced by the protestors may be in the minority today, but things could change very quickly as more people on the island learn about its long, proud heritage. The steps we take now can harden and polarize opinions on both sides, or begin to move us toward healing. I vote for healing.
Fortunately, astronomers have a plan B. We talked about it several years ago, when everyone agreed that we could build the TMT on the Canary Islands. It’s not as ideal and beautiful as Maunakea, but this is the obvious and easiest way to move forward with science, keep good relationships with the Hawaii people, and end this controversy.
Let’s put this into the astronomical perspective. The stars, the planets, and the galaxies were here long before humanity emerged and will be here long after we are gone. People like me who love Hawaii know that it is still home to many state-of-the-art telescopes that will give us countless opportunities do cutting-edge astronomy on Maunakea.
I know that what I am saying here will disappoint some TMT supporters. The TMT will probably be one of the most complex and impressive human creations, and has much to offer Hawaii, in terms of education, economic growth, and cultural heritage. Frankly, I occasionally wonder why some of the energy used to oppose this telescope was not used to defend the local environment and address other socio-economical problems facing the island, but as a guest I am not here to judge. What the people of Hawaii choose to do, which priorities they choose to address, is their business and not the concern of outsiders like me.
Sadly, if we don’t build the TMT at Maunakea, there will be fewer ‘Oumuamua, Haumea, Laniakea-like objects to represent Hawaiian culture in the cosmos. But stars, galaxies, and planets are indifferent to what we call them. And with or without the TMT, Maunakea will still be there and will still be one of the best sites on planet Earth to do astronomy.
I vote for healing.
Mahalo & clear skies