A Conflict of the Sacred

Opponents of astronomy on Mauna Kea often denigrate astronomy in a way that they would find totally objectionable if the same tactics were reversed and directed towards their cause. They repeatedly use words like meaningless, industrial, and claim the observatories exist only for profit. Those who make such claims fail to understand astronomy in much the same way they accuse telescope supporters of failing to understand their beliefs about Mauna Kea.

Sunset Gemini
The Gemini telescope prepares for the night, in the background is the CFHT telescope
They neglect to think that destroying the telescopes atop Mauna Kea would be seen as an act of desecration of enormous magnitude. To millions of people across the world the great telescopes represent something far more than simple buildings and telescopes. They are a concrete symbol for hope, an indication that not all is dismal and lost in this world, that one can still dream.

Each day we watch news of war that leaves cities laid waste, brutal sectarian violence, of economic strife, the wholesale destruction of the environment. When seeing news of people killing each other for no reason beyond minor differences in beliefs, it is so easy to despair that humanity is doomed to a dismal future.

Can we do better?

In Facebook posts and newspaper website comments there has been far too much hatred. I see horrible racist and bigoted slurs directed at telescope opponents. I also see the same directed at telescope supporters, with every bit as much racism and hatred. There is a valid conflict here, but in this conflict a little of the darkness that lives in all of us can so easily appear.

To value astronomy and its work on Mauna Kea, you have to value the importance of “Ike,” knowledge, and its quest for a greater understanding of the universe we live in. – Chad Kalepa Baybayan

I grew up reading Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov, watching shows like Star Trek and Firefly. Often the underlying theme of these bits of science fiction was the potential for good in humanity. Good science fiction asks hard questions about the future, about where do we go from here. It can also give hope that we can build a better world. Like so many, my view of the world was in part shaped by those stories. I still hold that hope.

An ancient ahu (shrine) atop Mauna Kea with the summit in the background
Across the globe there are thousand upon millions of people who look to the stars, who follow the triumphs of NASA or the ESA in probing the planets, who cheer the confirmation of a basic subatomic particle. To these people the telescopes, the spacecraft, the great particle accelerators are just as sacred as any church or temple. They represent all that is good in humanity, they represent hope of a better future, of an effort to learn and understand the universe we live in.

Working in astronomy you see amazing things. Not just images of distant stars and galaxies, but of people at their best. Any gathering of astronomers, or the engineers who build the great telescopes, will see people of many nationalities, races, and religions working together. Teams working on a single problem may include people who’s countries are at war. In the face of a vast universe our petty differences pale into insignificance, no one sees this more clearly than astronomers. There is hope.

To so many these telescopes are sacred.

Some might object to my using the word sacred in quite these terms to refer to science and astronomy, as it does not contain the traditional religious meaning. I would respond that my usage is accurate, in using this term I am referring to how one regards the world, what things and places they see as important, where one places their hopes and dreams.

Mauna Kea holds a special place on Earth, as it stands as a place of peace and Aloha, not just for Hawaiʻi but for the world. Many sacred places of the world hold ancient wisdom bound in ritual and ceremony for this time in our history, to help us all heal ourselves and the world. Mauna Kea is one of those places. – Kealoha Pisciotta

Mauna Kea is sacred to some, who believe that this place is pivotal, the piko of creation. Others believe that the telescopes are sacred, a testament to the finest aspirations of mankind, to learn and explore, to answer the great questions. It is a mistake, made by many in this controversy, to deny either of these views.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

8 thoughts on “A Conflict of the Sacred”

  1. Aloha Andrew! This is a great piece of writing, and mirrors my feelings about the mountain and modern science very closely. The only item I might take the most minor issue with is the concept that there exists a group of people out there who maintains, in parallel to your closing paragraph, that this mountain is BOTH sacred for traditional use AND modern sacredness. I was taken by two very solid concepts, one, that the science being done on Mauna Kea CAN be considered sacred, and two that you have so well articulated the possibility of both the old and the new existing in harmony. Mahalo for your clear thinking!

  2. Those who insist the Thirty Meter Telescope cannot co-exist with their spiritual practices have yet to articulate why not. The blanket assertion that the telescopes are generally a desecration is a shaming technique, as you say Andrew, a put down of the worth to others of the quest for knowledge. The repetition that they already have the knowledge the telescopes seek must be calculated to be unacceptable to anyone with the faintest sense of modern astronomy. Would these same people decline the help of an orthopedist to set a broken bone, or canoe between the islands rather than fly? Ancient knowledge is a beautiful thing, and should not be ignored. Candlelight is lovely, but electric light is more useful generally speaking. Everything has its place, even astronomy on the mountain.

  3. Is there “a darker view” on why TMT didn’t disclose its collaborative partnership with the USAF?

    “As reported last year, the California Association for Research in Astronomy (CARA) formed
    a collaboration with the Starfire Optical Range (SOR) at Kirtland Air Force Base and with the
    Thirty Meter Telescope project (TMT) to share the cost of the wafer run. Because the wafer run is
    a collaborative effort, it will include a number of different device designs to serve the interests of
    all three partners.” http://www.noao.edu/system/aodp/aodp-ar-2011.pdf (see Sub-Award No. C33002T)

    1. Buying technology from (or sharing the cost of development) is vastly different than having any sort of control over. Does the USAF have any control over you because you use and buy military technology? We all use GPS, the internet, weather satellites and many other items developed and/or paid for by the US military. The USAF is not a partner in TMT and has no control or influence over the construction or operation of the telescope, that is what counts.

  4. Andrew in a previous post you stated, “We do have some access to military sensor development, as these optical detectors are very useful in building cameras and spectrographs. Astronomy institutions have invested considerable effort in the development of this tech. But these contacts are pretty narrow and interested in very niche technology.”

    Is your reference above to the LGS WFS design for NFIRAOS featuring the ‘polar coordinate’ CCD? Also when the literature refers to the fabrication, probing, dicing, front side processing, back-side thinning, and packaging of several single quadrant, 30×30 sub aperture prototypes of this device, are they referring to the wafers being designed by MIT/LL? Are the wafers themselves considered the polar coordinate array or are there other components to this technology?

    Finally, are these CCD prototypes the ones that the Chinese government is saying they currently don’t have access to? See the “Science Case for the Chinese TMT Project”, under the section heading “Justifications and Benefits for joining TMT”.



    As a non expert very much appreciate your response.

    1. All I can answer is generalities here as I do not know the details of the detector run. These are items that are covered by export control law. Meaning it is illegal to share any of the technical data with a “foreign person”. There are any number of items that this can apply to that we, and many other technical institutions, have in our possession. There is actually a lot of tech that is covered by export controls, the latest microprocessors, digital signal processors and graphics processors, optics and medical technology. This is a concern throughout science institutions and corporations across the US where these laws apply.

      At Keck this covers various laser technologies and detectors. If we have a visiting engineer or scientist who it not authorized to see this data the data and equipment must be under lock and key or similarly inaccessible. They must be escorted when visiting certain areas of the facility. Likewise we can not send data to someone outside the observatory.

      Observatory equipment has long lifetimes, a decade or more. While export control moves much faster with the rate of technological development. What is export controlled today will not be in a few years as state of the art moves on, eventually the State Department will remove the gear from the control list and we can share the data. Anything in development today will probably be no longer considered sensitive by the time TMT is completed and operational.

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