On April 10th , 2019, NASA published the first ever image of a black hole , following observations made by the Event Horizon Telescope in 2017 (see below). It generated a great deal of excitement in the scientific community and indeed among the general public. Black holes, I believe, have always been a bit of mystery to the public and have been the source of stirring the imagination of many a science fiction movie goer as to what exactly they are or- more importantly –what is on the other side. I recall when my then 6 year old granddaughter asked me what a black hole was and when I tried to explain it to her- I realized that my explanation must have sounded pretty wacky and that, in fact, I didn’t really understand what black holes were either. And of course, it doesn’t help when the feeble facts put forward are met with “but why? ” Why, indeed.
I am not going to attempt to explain black holes here but have instead chosen it as an appropriate metaphor as to why I haven’t posted anything in —GASP!!—close to a year!! I would have told you that it was 6 months at most and I was already feeling guilty about that. But to learn that it is twice that–well, I must have been caught up in one of those time and space warp thingees that are a convenient plot device of so many sci fi novels. In short, I have been absent from the page because of a black hole—I fell in one, metaphorically speaking. This black hole is called Life and I could give a litany of excuses such as work and family commitments, a couple of medical challenges, a family wedding in Europe and so on and so on.. But the more important thing is that I’m back and there is stuff to talk about:)
“ When Science and Religion Collide on a Hawaiian Mountain Top ” ( column attached here )
When I opened my September column , it was a perfect opportunity to use of my favourite quotes from a man who arguably was one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.
” Science , without religion, is lame ; Religion, without science, is blind..”
If you haven’t been following the story of the Indigenous Hawaiian protesters blocking the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the peak of Hawaii’s iconic Mauna Kea ( ” White Mountain”), don’t feel bad. Other than a brief announcement in the mainstream news when the peaceful protests began in July, this story has flown pretty much under the radar since then. In fact, I had to really dig to find out the latest in order to bring you this update, and find that I seemingly can only rely on the ever trusty ” Honalulu Civil Beat” for any detailed insight as to what is going on.
First of all, some background on the issue and the players. My newspaper column is attached and will provide more details on the background but in short: The TMT is an international non profit science project and when it is built , will be one of the largest and most powerful telescopes in the world, allowing astronomers ” to see forming galaxies at the every edge of the observable universe ,near the beginning of time.” As to why this has generated such excitement in the science world, including among astronomy and space enthusiasts like me, requires no further explanation. Who would not be thrilled at the prospect of the cosmic revelations and discoveries about nothing less than our origins and place in the Universe? Surely that is worth every penny that has been invested in this project! But is it?
Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain ( located on a volcano ) in the world and its location above sea level where there is no light pollution and atmospheric interference make it a “heaven” for astronomers seeking near perfect viewing conditions. But there is only one problem. Mauna Kea, known to the indigenous Hawaiins as Mauna a Wakea is also the home of the Sky Father , an important deity in the indigenous religion and as such, is sacred. And that makes people of faith like me ( even though I don’t share these particular beliefs) very uncomfortable. As a matter of fact, my posterior is starting to get a little sore from sitting on the fence and I keep hoping ( and praying ) that these 2 communities will find the proverbial middle ground to a solution that everyone can live with. I want this project to go forward as much as anyone in the science community but not at the cost of trespassing on and disrespecting the land and beliefs of the Indigenous community. Given the fact that there are 13 other operating telescopes around the Mauna Kea summit, I feel safe in assuming that the Hawaiian people are not opposed to exploring the heavens and may in fact, love the stars as much as the astronomical community. There is much to be gained here in terms of discovery and knowledge that will benefit all of humankind, so why is it so difficult for these 2 communities to work it out?
As of this writing and the October 7th update in the Honolulu Civil Beat ( HCB), the 2 “sides” remain at an impasse and the protesters remain firmly on the mountain, blocking the construction that should have started 3 months ago. The Hawaiian State Legislature nominally supports the project but when HCB surveyed the 76 lawmakers as to their stand, only 22 stated that they want to see the TMT built, 2 opposed it and the rest? Well–they didn’t say anything at all. This is obviously a very sensitive and controversial topic with many layers to it and seems only the brave and passionately committed were willing to go on record and take a stand one way or another. Braver than me—still tottering uncomfortably on the fence. But those who did speak out did so with fervour and emotion:
” This is a battle for the very soul of Hawaii” , said Representative Dale Kobajashi.
Others, such as Representative Calvin Sing, seemed to look for the balance and the middle ground that I am still hoping can be found.
” As a state representative , I am sworn to uphold the laws of the state ” he says.
” I truly believe that our forefathers , the navigators of the Hokula, used the stars and the Universe as a guide and the TMT will be another piece of equipment for that use. Researching the Universe will benefit our kids.”
Of course, space enthusiasts such as myself strongly believe that researching the Universe will benefit all of humanity and the return will come in the form of scientific truths about our origins, and our place in the Universe . And some of those truths may intersect with our spiritual and existential beliefs as well. This could be a classic win/win situation for both science and faith but not while the 2 camps remain parked on the mountaintop, and as far as I can tell, not talking to each other.
Because I found this situation so troubling, I asked for advice from the Director of the Vatican Observatory where I was privileged participate in a week long study and sharing of ideas on faith in astronomy in 2017. Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Roman Catholic Brother and professional astronomer is well known and much loved for his balanced and joyful outreach on matters of astronomy and faith as we embrace the wonders of God’s Universe. His advice to me was simple and wise. We cannot comment on issues such as this because there are elements to it which are beyond our control and we therefore have nothing of value to contribute to the conversation. And he is right in that this “stand off ” is about more that just science and faith: it actually has a lot more to do with political and social issues such as indigenous sovereignty and land claims- issues which are far beyond my purview to comment on in any meaningful way. Better, he says, to focus our thoughts on the beauty and wonder of exploring the heavens. Sounds like good advice to me.:)
But while I am gazing at the heavens and wonders of the Universe, I remain uncomfortably poised on the fence and I guess I will remain there until this is resolved, hopefully soon , because it will be truly exciting to get the TMT built and turned sky ward. I don’t have any solutions or brilliant insights to offer on this troubling situation but I do have one thought that applies to this and many other situations of human conflict. People need to start listening to each other!! I mean really listening. The online comments that I browsed through on this were very polarizing, not particularly helpful and in some cases, just downright nasty! I am going to leave you with an insightful quote from University of Hawaii President, David L. Lasser, who is one of the players in this situation and is trying to facilitate productive dialogue to find that outcome that everyone can live with. ( in reference to some of the more negative comments from both sides.)
“We learn from one another when we listen, not when we dismiss. Hurtful words cut off discourse. ”
Amen to that. Let’s start listening, learning from each other and exploring the Universe- together 🙂
Would love to know what you think.