UH Hilo and TMT: Part 1

Controversy addressed from student perspectives

News Writer Valentina Martinez

“It would mean something so big for humanity not just here in Hawaiʻi - it’s the world, the universe.” - Niki Thomas, Astrophysics and biology double-major

This article is the first of a two-part series on the debate over the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). Ke Kalahea recognizes the sensitivity behind this topic, and intends to provide both sides of this argument in depth. This first article will be covering the pro-TMT argument, while the following issue will present the anti-TMT case from student perspectives. The controversy is still fresh in the minds of many in the community, as Hawaii-Tribune Herald reports that a hearing for the re-permitting of TMT will be held tomorrow, Oct. 11, at the Hilo Naniloa Hotel at 10:00 a.m.

Photo courtesy of Philip Rosenberg of Getty Images
Photo courtesy of Philip Rosenberg of Getty Images

Heated protests have gained much attention in the news, as some argue that sacred, indigenous land is once again being exploited for inappropriate purposes. TMT is expected to cost around $1.4 billion, and would be built on six acres on the western summit of the dormant volcano, Mauna Kea. This section of land is also viewed as the home of several Hawaiian deities, and thus an integral part of Hawaiian culture and identity.

Ke Kalahea recently met with students from the UH Hilo Astrophysics Club (UAC), who wished to explain their argument in favor of TMT. (It is important to mention that the views and opinions of these students do not represent the Astrophysics department, or the entirety of its student body.) Niki Thomas, an astrophysics and biology double-major, and Theodore “Teddy” Pruyne, the UAC president and an astrophysics major, were among those who spoke to Ke Kalahea.

“If you look at the history of humans, what does every culture have in common? They look at the stars. The Vatican has observatories. Looking at the stars is something we’ve always done. So to me it’s not separate, you’re asking the same questions, you’re just going about answering it in a different way... They were never apart,” said Thomas.

Pruyne further confessed that something he doesn’t like about the debate is a perceived war between science and culture. He says that the UAC has been working to “try to build a gap between maintaining culture, while respecting the aspects of science and vice versa. You can do your science and still respect someone’s culture. I don’t think it has to be one or the other.”

Both Thomas and Pruyne agreed that they do not see cultural beliefs and science as separate from each other—they can cross paths and intermingle, while still respecting the differences of each other’s approaches.

Photo Courtesy of Mauna kea Observatory
Photo Courtesy of Mauna kea Observatory

Thomas recalled that when she was volunteering for AstroDay last semester, “You have little kids who maybe before wanted to be astronomers - because looking at the stars is part of Hawaiian culture too, and how they got here by navigating the stars… they say to me “I want to study it but I can’t because my family doesn’t like it.” They shouldn’t be prohibited from astronomy - it’s not like the science of astronomy is innately evil. All these things are happening because of the situation.”

Both students talked about the TMT-sponsored THINK Fund, which is awarded through grants and scholarships in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) disciplines. Their website states that the fund “further recognized that an emphasis be given to improving opportunities for STEM education for Native Hawaiian students, not as an exclusive preference, but focusing on addressing the needs of Hawaii’s host culture.”

Thomas added that STEM is, by definition, a broad spectrum - it covers, for instance, Native Hawaiians who wish to study nursing, pharmaceuticals, or ecology to save birds, just to name a few. Thomas asserted that TMT has already been donating this money for years, which it is not conditional upon the telescope being built.

“There’s a gap right now between everything going on in the science community and the regular community and I think it’s more of a miscommunication. There are a lot of arguments that have been said against TMT and a lot of of them are misinformed,” Pruyne said. They addressed one of the bigger arguments opposing TMT of polluting the aquifer, with one of their explanations being that where the telescope would be built is above the cloudline where it rains. Thus, their argument follows, there is no rain to carry any potential pollution into the aquafilter, and even so, anything that could make its way down would be so far diluted it would make no difference. Thomas refuted another anti-TMT argument concerning the telescope’s environmental impact: “There are only seven plants, not seven different kinds of plants in the area where it’s supposed to be built.” Thomas added that “A lot of it is “how do we inform that TMT is going to be a zero-waste facility and getting the facts to people without insulting them.””

Thomas runs a booth at the Hilo Farmers Market every Saturday; at the market she states that, yes, she is pro-TMT, but she and her associates do not force their opinions on curious people, they just give their opinions and present facts and misinformation. She argues that there are myriad barriers to getting information to the public. In her eyes, many people simply ‘want’ to hate TMT, and that it is hard enough to get people to even look at the official website. “The information doesn’t have to change your mind about it, it’s still good to know the facts,” Thomas said.

The final topic Thomas and Pruyne discussed with Ke Kalahea was why Mauna Kea had been chosen for such a controversial project in the first place. Earth is divided into two hemispheres, one southern and one northern; in astronomy, usually one or the other hemisphere is mostly visible. Hawai’i, on the other hand, is close enough to the equator where both are visible with just a small portion of the south missing. Additionally, Mauna Kea supports a pristine environment for viewing due to low light pollution, isolation, altitude, temperature, and dryness—all equaling to no atmospheric distortion. Thomas explained the utmost major benefit TMT may offer: “It will actually be able to directly image exoplanets without using any special technique - which we use a lot of right now. It’ll be able to just point and see them and even be powerful enough to potentially see what the atmospheres of some of these planets are made of.” And with the search for exoplanets underway - as my colleague Alyssa Grace covered in our last issue - Thomas says “it would mean something so big for humanity not just here in Hawai’i—it’s the world, the universe.”