Hawai‘i is currently hosting the biggest astronomy conference worldwide, the general assembly of the International Astronomical Union, to address current issues in astronomy.
The ocean breeze, dancing palms, sandy beaches — it’s a recipe for paradise. Add about 3,000 astronomers from more than 75 nations, and you’ll have a picture of the 29th IAU’s General Assembly. The 11-day event will present 3,500 selected talks and posters in several symposia and focus meetings. It will also include evening discourses, public talks, and outreach events such as stargazing sessions and planetarium programs.
The meeting is hosted in Honolulu, co-organized by the American Astronomical Society and greatly assisted by the University of Hawai‘i. At the opening ceremony on August 3rd, the mayor of Honolulu and the state governor of Hawai‘i welcomed the participants and bridged the Hawaiian ancient culture and modern society with the night sky.
Prominent speakers from the astronomical community included Meg Urry, the President of the American Astronomical Society, and France Cordova, the director of the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. and former NASA Chief Scientist. She was the highest ranked authority of the US government at the event. The program also included the 2015 Gruber Foundation Cosmology Prize (US$ 500,000), awarded to Jeremiah Ostriker, John Carlstrom, and Lyman Page for their contributions to the study of the universe on the largest scales.
The opening ceremony enlightened me on the intriguing word “aloha." The greeting can simply mean hello, but it can also convey gratitude, a hope for peace, and compassion for others. All the speakers began their speeches with “Aloha,” but the context for each was different. Guest speakers used it as a respectful salutation that showed their understanding of cultural values.
Local representatives used the word with even deeper meanings, as they continue to seek a difficult balance: supporting the advancement of science (including both its educational and economic aspects), while also respecting the voice of local islanders who wish to stop further construction on Mauna Kea.
The Mauna Kea Challenge
The 4,200-meter (13,800 feet) dormant volcano is not only Hawai‘i’s highest point, it’s also one of the world’s most stunning mountains. The peak is more than 10,000 meters tall, though most of it is submerged in water. The summit’s atmosphere and climate, as well as its dark skies, are extremely well suited to advanced astronomical observations. Some of the world’s most prominent and scientifically important telescopes, such as Keck Observatory, have been built there.
But Mauna Kea is not only valuable to astronomers. It is also the most sacred mountain in Hawaiian mythology, one that tradition had allowed only the highest-ranked members of the community to visit. Construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the summit, scheduled to receive first light in 2022, has raised a local movement against the project. The conflict dates back to the earliest stage of the observatory’s construction in 1960s but for decades scientists and native islanders had worked together for the benefit of science and the local community.
The giant observatory would be one of the future game-changers to explore the universe, along with the 39-meter European Extremely Large Telescope and the 25-meter Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile.
On Tuesday, I attended the protesters’ press conference in front of the IAU conference venue. The opposition’s voices spoke with emotion about an issue that for them is largely spiritual. Mauna Kea is sacred to Hawaiian culture and has become a symbol for their spiritual and political survival. Moreover, though TMT officials insist the construction involves minimal environmental impact, the speaker of the Hawaiian community emphasized that we should protect the Earth and the environment before exploring the sky.
Astronomers spend years to develop projects such as the TMT, building new instruments and working on scientific proposals, as well as dealing with shrinking budgets and geographical and political boundaries. But they must also meet the environmental and cultural aspects of their selected site. This is particularly true in the digital age: opposition to TMT’s construction has been heard widely through the use of social media.
The speakers at the press conference also appeared to consider astronomy as a pure curiosity, but that’s where science communicators can help: we can show the public how space sciences and astronomy positively affect our daily life, revolutionize our understanding of our Earth, and provide new systems to monitor our fragile natural environment.
In the next two posts about the IAU conference I will talk about some of the interesting science to be presented here and new plans of the union. Also, keep up with the IAU’s goings-on in the event’s daily electronic newspaper, featuring that day’s talks and breaking IAU news.