BEZAWADA: Thirty Meter Telescope should not be made: Potential costs outweigh benefits


Opinion Column: Traipse The Fine Line

During the week of July 15, one of the most revolutionary scientific breakthroughs would have occurred. 

The aptly-named Thirty Meter Telescope was scheduled to be constructed atop the Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano whose peak soars at approximately 14,000 feet. The clean, dry air above the summit and minimal light pollution provides perhaps the most optimal viewing conditions for observatory equipment in the world. 

Thirteen telescopes have already been installed. But, the Thirty Meter Telescope, whose construction is funded by an international coalition of institutions from North America, China, India and Japan, is particularly monumental. 

The TMT International Observatory partnership contributed more than $1 billion to build massive sensors and mirrors that would possess 12 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope. The sheer volume and quality of data that the Thirty Meter Telescope — which had already been under construction for a decade — could yield would have proven this colossal investment priceless.

But at what cost?

Mauna Kea may be the eye for the vast unknown, but to the native Hawaiian people, the mountain protects all those on Earth. It is the sacred birthplace of the Hawaiian islands, where the god of the sky, Wakea, met the goddess of the Earth, Papa. 

The mountain has been the heart of native Hawaiian culture for more than a thousand years, and before its discovery by astronomers and Western colonists, only the chosen chiefs and elders were bestowed the right to access it.

The issue came to international attention when 30 peacefully-protesting elders blocking the only road leading up to the volcano were arrested. Although eventually released, the arrest incited outrage among the native Hawaiian community and sympathizers worldwide. 

The week following the date of the telescope’s intended construction, more than 2,000 protestors rallied to support the mountain's cause. Among them were actors Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Momoa, who both have parental roots in native Hawaiian culture. Their social media posts regarding the conflict have exposed the ongoing fight for Mauna Kea to even more people.

Kaho'okahi Kanuha, one of the leaders of the protests, said that the 13 other astronomical observing sites have “desecrated” their land. He also said that every time a telescope was built, authorities insisted it would be the last. Meanwhile, Scott Yang, a TMT spokesperson, SAID that TMT has the best intentions “for the environment, the culture, the economy and the future of Hawaii Island” in mind.

The inevitable question arises, then: Which side is right?

Wondering about outer space and the world beyond is a time-honored tradition that has captivated civilizations long before Polynesian people traveled in canoes from the Marquesas Islands on the other side of the globe to Hawaii back in 400 C.E. 

It is quite possibly the only subject that has so consistently enthralled cultures throughout history and is the impetus that has propelled significant advances in science and technology, such as the Space Race of the 1960s. 

Perhaps, most importantly, the endless pursuit of knowledge parallel to the vastness of space has always united humanity despite its constant divisions and altercations. The world gathered in silence at the height of the looming threat of the Cold War to witness Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon.

The thing is, space will always exist. The Earth as we know it will not.

The sacred history of Mauna Kea, cultivated for more than a millennium, is unique to native Hawaiians. Unlike telescope manufacturers and the infinite cosmos, the cultural significance of the volcano does not exist everywhere else. 

Space is in no danger of encroachment, whereas increasing pressure from tourists and scientists is inflicting damage upon the holy sites on Mauna Kea. The right to choose whether the mountain is preserved or leased must belong to the native Hawaiian people. Nobody objects to a person’s right to privacy or to their own home. 

The decision to protect and defend one’s identity and what one considers home, so long as neither trespasses on the boundaries of others, must belong entirely to the people. Progress, scientific or societal, is not progress if it involves the loss of another.

Today marks the 57th day of protests at the foot of Mauna Kea. Neither the TMT partnership nor the people of Hawaii are backing down. The mountain stands tall. 

In the end, the fate of the volcano rests not on the stars, but on the people who strive to protect it. 

As Johnson wrote on his Instagram post during his participation in the rallies: “When we lead with empathy, we make progress thru humanity.”

Sruti Bezawada is a Rutgers Business School sophomore majoring in Marketing and double-minoring in Japanese and Digital Communications and Information Media. Her column, “Traipse the Fine Line,” runs every alternate Tuesday.

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