New astronomy course at UH Hilo: Maunakea as a contemporary place of contrasting world views

Students are analyzing past and present cosmologies, discussing relationships between astrophysical and non-astrophysical perspectives, and placing them into historical, cultural, and personal context.

By Susan Enright.
This story is part of a series on new courses offered this semester.

View of Maunakea from Hilo Bay.
Cathy Ishida
Cathy Ishida

In a new course at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, students are studying and analyzing Maunakea as a contemporary place of contrasting world views. Cosmos and Culture (ASTR 381/394) delves into historical, intellectual, social, and cultural context of astronomical discovery from a multitude of perspectives including the exploration of both scientific and nonscientific cosmologies.

Students in the class are exploring the skills and knowledge astronomers need—in addition to astronomy—to engage constructively in conversations about the past, present, and future of Maunakea.

The course invites students to inquire deeply into the historical, intellectual, social, and cultural context of astronomy as a field of study, asking students to investigate topics such as cultural astronomy, the philosophy of science, the history of astronomy, Hawaiian studies, cultural studies and other fields.

“I hope stepping back and evaluating the big picture, whether it’s the cosmology of a particular culture, the scientific enterprise, or their own lives, will become a habit for students in this course,” says Catherine Ishida, who is teaching the class.

Ishida, who moved to Hilo in 2002 to work at Subaru Telescope, where she did research on interactions among galaxies and how they contribute to the evolution of galaxies over time, used her fluency in English, Japanese and astronomy to contribute to the observatory’s public information and outreach.

Ishida received her doctor of philosophy in astronomy from UH Mānoa in 2004. In 2007, she interrupted her work in astronomy to become an ordained minister in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, a multi-religious humanist faith.

Since returning to Hilo in 2011, she has been teaching at the UH Hilo Department of Physics and Astronomy and consulting with local congregations “teaching practical philosophy and impractical physics.”

“Just as people have looked at the same sky for ages and came up with different interpretations, the same facts can have different meanings for different people,” she explains. “Science majors in particular have few opportunities in their curriculum to examine how such differences affect the content and context of their field of study. I hope the course helps students better negotiate those differences in personal, professional and communal settings.”


Ishida says a key component of the new course is having students devise questions, invite conversation, and listen deeply to learn how astronomical and non-astronomical cosmologies inform people’s lives in Hawaiʻi today.

The course focuses on three areas: cultural astronomy, the scientific revolution, and cosmos and culture in contemporary Hawai‘i.

From the course description:

Introduction to Cultural Astronomy: After a basic review of fundamental skills necessary for successful cross cultural encounters, we’ll take a look at the variety of ways people have related to the sky through the naked eye prior to the wide dissemination of the Newtonian worldview.

The Scientific Revolution: Several developments began in the 15th century: global economic unification, technological and political dominance by Western Europeans, and a mechanistic worldview justified by the success of new ways of making truth claims. We’ll review basic concepts in the philosophy of science and apply them to close readings of the biographies of “iconic heroes of science.”

Cosmos and Culture in Contemporary Hawaiʻi: We’ll take a look at astrophysical cosmologies and non-astrophysical cosmologies that are alive in Hawaiʻi today by talking to people who live and promote them. Specific topics will include Hawaiian cosmology and star lore in the Hula traditions, Hawaiian wayfinding, developments in astrophysical research, and the institutions that sustain each of these.

Synthesis: We’ll apply what we learned throughout the semester to our own understanding of Maunakea as a contemporary locus for contrasting world views.

By the end of the course, Ishida says students will be able to describe a variety of past and present cosmologies, discuss relationships between astrophysical and non-astrophysical cosmologies, and place them into historical, cultural, and personal context. Students will also be able formulate a nuanced definition of science that reflects its complex realities.

“There are many issues that can be deeply personal, technical, and controversial in the local community,” she says. “The future of Maunakea is an obvious example, but there are other issues such as the future of agriculture and tourism. I hope that students will become skillful catalysts for meaningful conversation in the local community and beyond.”


About the writer of this story: Susan Enright is a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

Also in this series on new courses

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