Astrophysicist and celebrity science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson took to Facebook to articulate his thoughts on the contentious construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea.
In a post entitled “Hawaii’s Conduit to the Cosmos,” Tyson explained the various factors that make Mauna Kea an ideal location for telescopic discovery — its place above rain clouds, the darkness, the stable airflow — before acknowledging the cultural dilemma at play, stating that the protesters have blocked construction because they “consider the summit sacred and that the presence of telescopes represents just another mark of unwelcomed European colonization.”
“My only opinion here,” Tyson wrote, “is that the people of Hawaii, and not anyone else, should be the ones who determine the fate of Mauna Kea’s summit. It’s their mountain. It’s their state.”
He then continued to make an appeal for the construction of the telescope by invoking the “magnitude of accomplishment” of Polynesian exploration:
“Have you ever contemplated the size of the Pacific Ocean? At the equator, it spans one third of all Earth’s longitude. Have you seen how scattered the island nations are that dot it? Mere dozens of miles separate some of them, but for others, hundreds and even thousands of miles of open ocean separate one island from the next. Now go back in time. More than three millennia ago: Before GPS; before marine chronometers; before the industrial revolution; before sextants, before compasses, before and during the time of Muhammad, Jesus, and Buddha. Now try to do what the Polynesians did.”
On this assertion, Tyson made his appeal “in the interest of informed discussion,” writing:
“All this leaves me to wonder what the ancient Polynesians would say about having the world’s largest instrument of navigation on an island they discovered. Today, with Earth’s landmasses fully mapped, we look up from our planet’s surface — a kind of shoreline of its own to the cosmic ocean. With telescopes trained on the heavens, while scientists ‘navigate’ from the back end, we nightly explore humanity’s place in the cosmos. Which leaves me to ask: Whatever is your concept of the divine forces that created and shaped our universe, might the discoveries of modern astrophysics bring you closer to them? I wonder in this way, not because I am an astrophysicist but because I am human.”