At a public presentation, the Hawaiian language scholar and the research scientist compared the first 11 lines of an ancient Hawaiian creation chant to modern astronomical theories of the origins of the universe. The similarity between the two is astonishing.
A Hawaiian language scholar and an astronomer studying the stars from Maunakea teamed up last week for a public presentation titled, “The Physics of Pō and The Pō of Physics,” where the two experts compared the first 11 lines of an ancient Hawaiian creation chant to modern astronomical theories on the origins of the universe. The similarity between the two is astonishing.
The eclectic presentation was given by Larry Kimura, an associate professor of Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies at Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language at UH Hilo, and Doug Simons, executive director of the Canada-France-Hawai‘i Telescope (CFHT) located on Maunakea. Foremost experts in their fields, the two discussed the opening lines of The Kumulipo, a significant and historic Hawaiian creation record that describes Pō as a fathomless source of power (deep darkness) that evolves increasingly into complex life forms.
The speakers brought to the discussion their vast expertise and knowledge in their respective fields. Kimura is often described as the “grandfather” of Hawaiian language revitalization in modern Hawai‘i whose work can be traced back to the conception of core foundational educational programs in the 1980s that launched the rebirth of the Hawaiian language. Simons is an astronomy veteran in Hawai‘i, having spent almost his entire professional career either observing with or working for various Maunakea observatories including the UH Institute for Astronomy, the CFHT as a resident astronomer, and the Gemini 8-m Telescopes Project.
“As an astronomer, when I first read [the first lines of The Kumulipo], I was just dumbfounded by the astronomy flowing from these words. The first line beautifully captures the inflation of space immediately after the big bang in just six words.”
At the event, the speakers were introduced by Ka‘iu Kimura, executive director of ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai‘i and Larry Kimura’s niece. She noted that Kimura and Simons first met through their participation in ‘Imiloa’s A Hua He Inoa program, in which Hawaiian-speaking students work with Hawaiian educators and Hawai‘i-based astronomers to give Hawaiian names to astronomical discoveries.
The lecture: The Physics of Pō and The Pō of Physics
The Kumulipo is the most significant and historic Hawaiian creation chant that has survived to modern times. King David Kalākaua, Hawai‘i’s seventh ruling monarch, inherited the chant, which honors several of his ancestors. In 1889, the king had The Kumulipo printed in its entirety. As a result, the chant has survived while many other genealogical chants have not. The chant describes how the universe and its many forms of life evolve from a state of vast darkness and over time more complex forms emerge leading to humans.
“The Kumulipo provides evidence of the thinking of the Hawaiian people.”
At the lecture, Kimura showed the audience a slide of his unpublished English translation of the prelude to The Kumulipo, which begins as follows:
When fundamental space altered through heat
When the cosmos altered, turning inside out,
When the sun was flickering between darkness & light
Attempting to brighten the moon,
When this complete abyss was dotted with tiny stars,
Then began the slime that established a physical space
The source of impenetrable darkness, so profound,
A fathomless power, reincarnating itself.
“As an astronomer, when I first read this, I was just dumbfounded by the astronomy flowing from these words,” says Simons. “The first line beautifully captures the inflation of space immediately after the big bang in just six words. After the big bang, the universe was dark prior to the first stars emerging, which were made of only hydrogen and helium at that point. Then we had white dots—stars—with darkness in between. The fifth line of The Kumulipo is a beautiful match to what we astronomers know happened in that first generation of stars.”
Kimura is grateful that the chant survived for present day scholars to study.
“The Kumulipo provides evidence of the thinking of the Hawaiian people,” he says. “Without telescopes or instruments, just human thinking. I’m sometimes asked ‘How did our people think of this?’ and I can’t answer the question because I wasn’t there. But we know they thought about these things because they left it for us, thanks to King Kalākaua, who decided the chant had to be documented before we forget all of these lines.”
Simons says, “The Hawaiian legacy is that of observation and about applying those observations in a whole variety of ways. The Kumulipo is a spectacular example of not just astronomy but of evolution. It’s a tribute to Darwin in a lot of ways.”
Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University.
Photos by Raiatea Arcuri, a professional photographer majoring in business administration with a concentration in finance at UH Hilo.