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In Hawaii: insects before astronomy?

An astronomer reports from Mauna Kea, where the construction of star-gazing telescopes has been halted to protect a rare species of bug.

Henry Joy McCracken

Topics Science & Tech

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A well-built man in long flowing robes holds up what looks like an aubergine with leaves to the clear blue sky. Behind him one can glimpse the silvery dome of a telescope. The ground around his feet is dry, arid, volcanic. It looks like the surface of another planet – Mars, maybe.

Is this the opening scene of a low-budget sci-fi movie? Unfortunately not. This was the scene recently on the summit of Mauna Kea, on the big Island of Hawaii, Earth’s best site for astronomy, and the men with aubergines were self-styled ‘representatives of the mountain’. In early August a Hawaiian judge decided that protecting the environmental and religious ‘integrity’ of Mauna Kea should take precedence over astronomy, and development of further telescopes on the mountain has been halted.

The summit of Mauna Kea is above 40 per cent of the Earth’s atmosphere. The air is exceptionally dry and dark, perhaps the darkest of all skies on Earth. It is also outstandingly stable, providing some of the clearest images of the distant universe. Three of the world’s largest telescopes are here, as well as many smaller telescopes, since astronomers in the Seventies realised the exceptional qualities of the site. Its only real competitor is the Andean mountainous region of Chile, but that is considerably more difficult to access. There is simply no other place like Mauna Kea.

The telescopes here have made a profound contribution to our understanding of the universe; our knowledge of the cosmos is infinitely richer than it was before the University of Hawaii began constructing telescopes on Mauna Kea. Extragalactic astronomy and observational cosmology have been revolutionised thanks in large part to observations made on this summit.

But science is not static, something frozen in time. If the observations on the mountain have indicated that the universe might be filled with a mysterious ‘dark energy’ (to complement the equally mysterious ‘dark matter’ which makes up the rest of the Universe), then it is not enough to leave it at that. To discover more about these dark materials and the universe they inhabit, we need new instruments and telescopes even bigger and more ambitious than were the last generation: telescopes with 30-metre mirrors, which can survey the entire night sky to very faint magnitudes, not just every year but every night. (Managing the amount of data generated by such an operation is itself a task of unprecedented scale.)

However, increasingly the ‘needs’ of Mauna Kea itself, and those who claim that it is a sacred or environmentally important site, are being elevated over the need to push our understanding of the universe and stars.

In recent years, attentive readers of astronomical journals will have noticed something strange at the end of some articles. Alongside the usual ‘thanks to Corporation A for funding and support’ or ‘to Joe X who helped to operate the telescope’, there also frequently appears the following statement: ‘We wish to extend special thanks to those of Hawaiian ancestry on whose sacred mountain we are privileged to be guests. Without their generous hospitality, most of the observations presented herein would not have been possible.’ In my simplicity, I thought that making these observations was made possible thanks to 200 years of scientific development and the rigorous application of such science to manufacturing detectors and mirrors – but apparently, it’s really made possible by the grace of local communities.

This apologetic attitude on the part of astronomers to building and working on Mauna Kea is a response to demands, both from some local unelected community groups and environmentalist campaigners, for the mountain to be left alone – demands that have grown louder and louder. Being apologetic has backfired on the astronomers, though. On 3 August a judge on the Big Island decided against renewing NASA’s permit to construct ‘outrigger’ telescopes for the Keck 10m telescopes. He ruled that the ‘Mauna Kea Master Plan’ document, which outlined the plans for constructing six outrigger telescopes, was not comprehensive enough in its consideration of resource and land management on Mauna Kea. One campaigner against the building of the new telescopes said: ‘The decision has potentially major implications on the future development of astronomy on Hawaii…. But I think those implications are good.’

Good? As a result of the judge’s decision, not only will the new telescopes not be built, but the very idea that man should use his scientific and technological know-how to improve our understanding of our surroundings has been thrown into question. For all the claims that Mauna Kea must be ‘preserved’, the summit is one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. There is almost no living creature there. The green campaigners of the Sierra Club have, however, pointed out that there is one rare species of insect on the summit – the Wekiu bug – and protecting this insect has become a main plank of their crusade against the telescopes. Environmentalists have petitioned for the Wekiu bug to be placed on the US Federal endangered species list, and for the summit of Mauna Kea to be designated a ‘critical habitat for the Wekiu’. As one report noted, this would ‘impede astronomy projects’. And yet, it has not even been demonstrated that the construction of 11 other telescopes on the mountain over the past 30 years had any adverse impact on the Wekiu population.

The mountain may well be a place of worship for some sections of the Hawaiian community, and I don’t have anything against people carrying out rituals there. But I suspect that many of the protesters calling for a halt to the construction of telescopes probably live in air-conditioned homes, drive cars and use the internet – and it is worth remembering that this material wealth and prosperity enjoyed by many on the islands of Hawaii (which would have seemed inconceivable even a century ago) is a product of the curious spirit which drove man to develop and discover in the first place.

Why is there uproar about the telescopes now? Why are the needs of Wekiu bugs now being elevated over the need and desire for discovery? After all, during almost 30 years of development on the mountain (which involved the construction of telescopes far larger than the proposed outriggers) there was very little dissent. The current protests seem to me to be linked to the growth of a Hawaiian secessionist movement, some of whose activists wish to create a state-within-a-state – which has led some to view NASA’s and others’ telescopes as an ‘American imposition’. The protests are also informed by our early twenty-first-century malaise, the lack of basic faith in the Enlightenment project of understanding and controlling our world. It is a sad state of affairs when a bug, or even the outdated traditions of ancient worship, can take precedence over getting to grips with the universe.

I have stood on the metal catwalk of the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope at 3am, on the highest point of the mountain, and looked across the mountain, down towards the sea, and up towards the silent skies. It certainly is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. But the human eye only sees a tiny fraction of all there is to see; our senses can only perceive imperfectly all there is to perceive. Our grasp and comprehension of the universe has been vastly augmented by the telescopes on Mauna Kea, which have benefited all of us. We should not stop this adventure of discovery now.

Henry Joy McCracken is an astronomer at the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris. He is speaking in the session Reaching for the stars: realising the ambitions of the space age at the Battle of Ideas festival in London in October 2006.

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Topics Science & Tech

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