How a $1.4-billion scientific project ran into a cultural buzz saw

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Astronomers looking for sites for their giant telescopes must account for numerous conditions -- accessibility, distance from cities (sources of light pollution), minimal atmospheric turbulence -- and increasingly, cultural concerns.

The last of these is what’s roiling plans for one of the world’s largest telescopes, the $1.4-billion Thirty Meter Telescope near the summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii. Construction of the telescope, which in some ways is expected to be superior to the Hubble Space Telescope, was halted in April, soon after it began, in the face of protests from local cultural and heritage groups. The stoppage was initially scheduled to last one week; it has now lasted a month, and a date for the restart hasn’t been set. The completion date for the telescope, a joint project of Caltech, the University of California and a consortium of foreign academic institutions, is 2023.

Most recently, the state’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which oversees the interests of native Hawaiians, voted to rescind its 2009 endorsement of the TMT. The agency stopped short of opposing the project, however, in order to “give us a seat at the table” as discussions proceed, says Peter Apo, an OHA board member.


Conflicts between Big Science projects and local communities or political interests aren’t new. Indeed, they become more intense as projects become bigger and more expensive. The quintessential Big Science effort, Ernest Lawrence’s development of ever-larger cyclotrons at UC Berkeley over a span of three decades, began in Lawrence’s campus lab, expanded into a specially built building on campus and then to an entire tract in the hills above Berkeley (now the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) and to the farming town of Livermore (now the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory).

The cost of Lawrence’s first cyclotron was a few dollars, and of his last one well more than a million. Its most advanced offspring, the European Large Hadron Collider, cost $9 billion and occupies a tunnel 17 miles in circumference buried under farmland on the border between France and Switzerland. It’s the largest atom smasher in the world only because the U.S. Congress killed a bigger one, the Superconducting Super Collider in 1993 over cost concerns and politics (including politics within the physics community).

What’s new in the TMT story is the willingness of the scientist/builders to hear and address local concerns. In connection with the Thirty Meter Telescope, “conversations are happening,” says Michael Bolte, an astronomy professor at UC Santa Cruz and member of the TMT’s board of governors. “We know if we press too hard, that’s not the right path.”

Few Big Science projects are as big as astronomical telescopes, and few have more potential to conflict with local concerns. Mountaintops are prime locations for the instruments, and “mountaintops tend to be significant in somebody’s culture,” Bolte observes.

In the 1990s, for example, conflict erupted over plans for an observatory on Mt. Graham in Arizona, which is sacred to Apaches who know it as Dzil Nchaa Si An. The project went ahead, with exemptions from federal laws protecting the environment and Indian religious rights.

Hawaii’s Mauna Kea long has been recognized as one of the best locations on Earth from which to observe the heavens. Its summit at 14,000 feet is above much of the atmosphere and its prevailing ocean winds lack turbulence, making for remarkably transparent viewing. And it’s far from any major metropolis, whose illuminated glares threaten to blind even mountaintop observatories in populated areas. The first telescope went up near its summit in 1968, ushering in an era of intense telescope building. The TMT would be the 14th.


“It has some of the clearest skies anywhere on the surface of the Earth, “ Bolte says.

But it’s also cherished by Hawaiian culture. That has made the TMT “a flashpoint,” says Apo. The project has become “an opportunity for Hawaiians to question how the entire mountain has been managed.”

The moment of truth has been building for years. The first glimmers of talk about the TMT, in the 1990s, coincided with a resurgence in Hawaiian cultural awareness, which had been suppressed for the better part of a century. The initial protests led to a state-sponsored master plan for Mauna Kea, but many in the movement assert that its provisions have been flouted.

“The heart of the issue is getting some kind of commitment from the state to review the entire Mauna Kea management plan,” Apo says. “If they made the commitment that the TMT would be the last telescope, that would help.”

The TMT managers have tried to navigate this landscape as best they can. They committed to payments of $2 million a year, and possibly more, to lease the site and fund science, technical, engineering and math programs for students as well as training technicians for the Mauna Kea telescopes; the existing telescopes pay only $1 a year.

“Almost a decade ago, we realized things had to be done differently,” Bolte says. “We spent a long time talking to the community. We listened, made a bunch of changes, and thought we were there. But we learned we hadn’t had conversations with everybody.”

The most obdurate opponents are members of a small but growing Hawaiian sovereignty movement, which holds that statehood itself is almost an act of expropriation. Some opponents hold that the entire mountain is sacred, and any construction is sacrilegious. Apo calls that claim “somewhat problematical.... There’s a hard core who have a very deep belief system, and they’re not going to be satisfied with the construction of the TMT.”


He says a more likely resolution is for the state government and native Hawaiian interests to reach new understandings on management of the mountain -- and on broader issues important to the Hawaiian community. He thinks the TMT will be built, perhaps with further commitments to the local community. “I think all of this can be worked out.”

Thus far, however, state officials haven’t placed the matter on their front burner, possibly because the state legislature adjourned only last week. And as long as the standoff continues, the conflict risks becoming intensified, as happened when 31 protesters were arrested at the site in early April. “That brought it from Page 20 to Page 1,” Apo says. “Whoever ordered the arrests wasn’t thinking too clearly.”

The best outcome may that the resolution of the TMT controversy becomes a model for similar standoffs around the world. As science becomes bigger, the potential for conflict becomes magnified. The goal, says Bolte, is “coexistence.” That shouldn’t be so far out of reach.

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