Author: Zechariah Pfaffenberger

Editors: William Dean, Alyse Krausz, and Sarah Kearns


The next-generation of astronomy and astrophysics might happen near the beautiful, sandy shores of Hawaii, but for astronomers, reaching this dream is no day at the beach. A battle is being waged in Hawaii’s tropical paradise, drawing in people from scientists to celebrities. On one side of this battle are the kānaka (native Hawaiians) and on the other, a partnership of astronomers from governments and universities. The cause of their disagreement is a thirty-meter telescope (TMT) and a sacred mountain. Although we might be disappointed by any delay in scientific progress, the story of the TMT teaches scientists about the current state of science communication practices and how we might do better. 


With its eponymous mirror made of 492 segments, the TMT is designed to gather ten times more light than the current most powerful telescope on earth, the Keck telescope. This additional power will allow the TMT to image the formation of exoplanets (planets outside earth’s solar system) in regions of the sky where many stars crowd together and obscure images from smaller telescopes. 

Where you build the telescope is nearly as important as its size. Astronomers want to build the TMT on Maunakea, Hawaii’s highest mountain. The dark sky, dry climate, and elevation above forty percent of the atmosphere propelled Maunakea into first choice of site in 2009. Atop Maunakea, the images from the TMT could resolve stars a factor of ten times better than even the Hubble Space Telescope. This is basically the difference between picking out a quarter from a hundred kilometers or picking individual hairs in the portrait of George Washington from the same distance. Better resolved images mean you can distinguish objects farther away, which in turn means seeing back in time to events just after the Big Bang, when the universe was a violent ballet of colliding galaxies and black holes. The images from the TMT on Maunakea will allow scientists to discover links between black holes and galaxy formation.

However, a coalition of kānaka and their allies oppose telescope construction for ecological and cultural reasons. Some have voiced concerns that construction could contaminate Hawaii’s water supply. Primarily, this mountain is a site of incredible religious significance to the kānaka. In Hawaiian religion, Maunakea  is the first born son of Papahānaumoku (mother earth) and Wākea (sky father). These same gods later gave birth to the kānaka, making the Hawaiian people related to the mountain by blood. Maunakea is seen as the connection point between kānaka and their ancestors. Many important ceremonies related to birth and death take place upon Maunakea’s slope and summit. Maunakea’s cultural significance and the ecological risks of construction have motivated protesters almost since the site was first chosen. In fall 2019, as a new round of construction was set to begin, opponents blocked workers’ access to Maunakea and 33 people were arrested.

To persuade locals to build the telescope, astronomers have attempted to share their motives and compromise. The TMT’s proponents communicated the telescope’s benefit to humanity through graphs and studies. They created a website that enumerates the telescope’s economic benefits and its incredible data gathering capabilities. They instituted annual cultural and natural resource training for the construction workers and other contractors to “instill a sensitivity to any potential negative impact on cultural resources” during construction.  They have also made more long term promises like financial contributions to outreach efforts aimed at teaching Hawaiian culture in local schools and a ride sharing program to minimize traffic on the mountain.

As the scientific community, we might be frustrated after seeing all the work done by the TMT group to communicate their incredible scientific ideas and care for Hawaiian culture with seemingly no concessions by the opposition. But there’s more to the story of the TMT than just a one time cultural disruption.  There’s a deeper historical context. The TMT is not the first telescope controversy on Maunakea. Back in the 1960s, the kānaka agreed to let the Hawaiian government build one telescope. However, “…In the first few years, they ended up building four.” As Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the leaders of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, an organization which opposes the telescope’s construction, said, “That broke trust.” Over time, continued disregard for the agreement has broken the kānaka’s relationships with scientists.  Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire, has noted that ignoring Hawaiians’ reverence for the mountain could sway opinion of science more generally. She says there are Hawaiian students who have switched majors from natural science to another field because scientists seem to be attacking kānaka.  

To reiterate, the ongoing dispute is not because the groups have not communicated with each other. For example, at the 2020 meeting of the American Astronomical Society, the organizing committee invited prominent kānaka who spoke about land rights issues and the sacred reasons they oppose the TMT in several breakout sessions. The controversy stems from the different values of each group. Telescope proponents define success as economic growth and new scientific data. Construction opponents define success as preservation of Hawaii’s cultural autonomy and ecological care for the mountain. Given the longevity of these protests, it’s fair to say that the TMT proponents’ websites and economics studies are ineffective communication at best.

Dr. Rosie Alegado, a native Hawaiian and oceanographer, claimed that “Science is part of culture, and how science is done depends on the culture in which it is practiced.”  Science communication is not merely a clear explanation of new ideas or accessibility to technical details. It is also understanding how explanations appear through the lens of science culture. Public trust in science needs to be built within the context of the culture of those directly engaging with and affected by a scientific project. Learning the culture takes time, especially when that culture is different from your own.  

The abuse of the kānaka’s trust has taken place over many years. It will likely take an equal if not greater amount of time to heal those wounds. The kānaka need to see that scientists are interested in preserving the ecology of the mountain and that they will not steamroll the land in the name of progress. Scientists must pay their fair share of rent on the mountain. Most importantly, scientists must allow the kānaka  cultural relationship to the mountain to continue. The current cultural steps taken by the TMT project leaders are good, but have not gone far enough to show the kānaka that astronomers really value and understand the kānaka’s relationship to Maunakea.

The TMT’s proponents must exercise humility if they really believe in the TMT’s mission to explore the early cosmos. This likely means stopping construction for a couple generations while they work to understand the kānaka values and develop a partnership. That said, some recommendations have been put forward by the Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics in a series of white papers. For example, in the short term, they could pay fair market value for existing telescope properties and establish a cultural impact assessment process for any future development with the involvement of the kānaka and their cultural leaders. 

The ultimate long term achievement would be a more sustainable relationship between the kānaka and the scientific community. As in any relationship, communication will play a central role. But the communication can not be merely talking back and forth. The values of the kānaka  and the TMT’s proponents must be aligned. Astronomers well know the issues that occur when moving parts are not aligned. If a lens is off in a telescope, the image appears blurry and confusing. When science communication is practiced without an alignment of values, both scientists and lay people can not understand what each is saying. 

Conceptually, the interests of both groups have quite a bit of overlap. Researchers want the telescope to look at how matter coalesced into planets and life evolved. The kānaka revere Maunakea as the first coalescence of land. One of the few reasons kānaka  travel to the summit of the mountain is for universal alignment rituals. The unobstructed 360° view would allow aligning constellations with landmarks, thus recording information about the seasons that helped kānaka know when and where to plant [1]. The kānaka themselves were performing observational astronomy long before anyone pointed a telescope upward on Maunakea. Perhaps these interests can be a gateway to align values between both sides. In partnership with the kānaka,  astronomers could identify new astronomical methods that do not disturb the kānaka way of life but still answer important questions about the formation of the universe. With aligned values, perhaps the two groups can become a flourishing community exploring the cosmos in ways no one has yet imagined.




Zechariah Pfaffenberger is a graduate student at the University of Michigan studying physical chemistry in the lab of Dr. Julie Biteen. He grew up in Indiana near South Bend. He attended Indiana Wesleyan University and graduated with his Bachelors in Chemistry in 2018. His current research interests are single-molecule microscopy and spectroscopy, specifically plasmon-enhancement of fluorescence and circularly polarized luminescence spectroscopy. Zechariah writes for the University of Michigan chemistry website, does outreach at local middle- and high- schools near U of M, and is always looking for ways to expand his Sci Comm horizons. While not in his lab, he enjoys stargazing, podcasts, running, consuming Oreos, and generally living life to the fullest.

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