Saturday, April 25, 2015

Science Saturday: The Intersection of Anthropology and Science

The great thing about having a Facebook page (for Kokoba, I mean; in addition to the private personal account I have) is that it's a great way to store links and stories I find interesting but don't have the time to immediately blog about.

One such story is this article from NPR about constructing a giant telescope in Hawaii. The peak of Mauna Kea is considered sacred ground to a number of people; astronomers also say that it's the best possible location for this new telescope. A clash ensues.

The Twin Keck Telescopes on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. 

If you look at this as an isolated incident, it's easy to brush away Hawaiian concerns as silly superstition. However, if you posit this conflict as part of America's longer history in Hawaii, the waters get muddied. Land grabbing, arguably including land used to build the other telescopes in the islands, has been a pervasive issue in this history; I don't think it's too much of a stretch to make a connection between repeated land grabs and the resistance this telescope is facing. As this piece in Nature points out,

The Mauna Kea debate reflects larger issues of Hawaiian history, including past abuses such as using one of the islands as a practice bombing range, says Robert McLaren, associate director of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “There’s more to this than just a telescope on Mauna Kea,” he says.
Maxwell emphasizes that many of the protestors are not anti-science. “It’s just that enough is enough,” he says. “The land is an extension of you, so any destruction is hard inside.”

The telescope would be the largest so far on the Mauna Kea site, commonly referred to as the TMT—Thirty Meter Telescope. It's a joint project between two California universities as well as the governments of Canada, China, India, and Japan.Because of its location and isolation, Hawaii is a great place to build telescopes and observatories. There are already more than a dozen observatories on Mauna Kea for that very reason (including the ones pictured above). Some of them—maybe even most or all of them?—have faced similar objections. Can one of them be updated instead of building a new one? One of the pre-existing Mauna Kea observatories is actually slated for deconstruction and the land will be left untouched, allowed to be reclaimed by nature.

There is a lot more on this topic that deserves to be written, and I didn't have the time to write as much as I would, but I wanted to at least float the topic. It's a problem that speaks to two things I hold near to my heart: social justice/decolonization and the stars. This is more than just a simple religion versus science issue. This is a conflict that has its roots in political decisions going back two hundred years and beyond. How do you heal that rift? How can both sides win? Any thoughts, readers?


  1. I'm so torn :( I want to support science but I understand the concerns, too. I think (coming from someone that doesn't know all the facts yet) that updating one of the older ones is a good compromise. I guess we'll see, though!

    1. And, like, American/white/Western scientists have done some terrible and racially-tinged things in the name of SCIENCE!. Building an observatory is probably one of the least offensive things on that list, sorry to say. Nor is it the first. =/