Empathy and the Thirty Meter Telescope in Mauna Kea
Perhaps more than any other science, astronomy relies on the wonder of human imagination. For the average individual, astronomical discoveries do not shape their lives in the way medicines and technologies do, and so it comes as no surprise that the pursuit of such knowledge is riddled with controversy. One such example is the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Protests on the building of the telescope have sparked debates weighing the impact of TMT on astronomy against the impact it will have on Indigenous, native land. Standpoints on either side of the debate appear to share vastly different values, making consensus impossible and compromise difficult. It would appear that the pursuits of astronomy are in direct conflict with the interests of marginalized groups. However, when the field is viewed not through the objective lens of acquiring knowledge, but rather the empathic lens of its emotive influence, it suggests that astronomy may be among the most conducive of the sciences to ally with marginalized groups.
Audry Mcavoy at phys.org outlines the more objective benefits that TMT would bring to the astronomy field. She notes that the weather at Mauna Kea, a combination of its altitude and its aquatic surroundings, is “ideal for viewing the skies” (Mcavoy). She goes on to explain how the research conducted at such a telescope would bring key insights on distant planets, black holes, and even extraterrestrial life. In terms of the quest for knowledge, TMT would greatly benefit astronomy.
On the other hand, to natives of the island, TMT would “desecrate” Mauna Kea, a mountain they consider sacred (Van Dyke). As a Hawaiian-led group of scientists describes, only 27% of Native Hawaiians support TMT (Kahanamoku, 5). In the same piece, a poignant statement is made regarding the motive for pursuing astronomical knowledge, specifically that “narratives that curiosity about space is a uniting “human” experience… are antithetical to the colonial behaviors the astronomy community has engaged in” within Hawaii (Kahanamoku, 7). That is to say that while astronomy attempts to be a humanistic discipline, such an attempt stands in the face of a history that values knowledge over human culture. On such a humanistic scale, TMT appears to do substantial harm to the Hawaiian community.
As the objective quest for astronomical knowledge appears to oppose its emotive support of humanism, the question arises whether one of these aspects of astronomy is better suited for reconciling astronomical values with those of marginalized groups, such as the native Hawaiians. In her piece on “The right to know and understand the night sky,” Dr. Prescod-Weinstein remarks that “arguments about diversity in science are made in the name of exceptional people among those being brutalized,” emphasizing the utility of minority groups in a manner that she claims is “too close to the logic of slavery” (Prescod-Weinstein). Rather than hold the value of astronomy and astronomers to such objective utilities, she insists that we instead emphasize the night sky as “the beautiful place that holds the answers to how we came to exist at all” (Prescod-Weinstein). Although one aspect of astronomy seems to conflict with marginalized groups, a different perspective on it, one that is more about its humanizing, emotive aspects, may serve to support them instead.
When we focus on the emotive aspect of astronomy, we empathize with feelings of wonder through the same eyes with which we empathize with feelings of marginalization and exclusion. At the same time, we capture the wonder and awe that gives astronomy its unique value to humanity. A science that seeks to enchant more than it does to bring material value, astronomy has the potential to offer unwavering support of marginalized groups. Sure, TMT would indeed do much to increase these enchanting feelings, but if its construction will lead to the anger, betrayal, and loss of trust of the native people of Hawaii, then perhaps its real value to astronomy, in the emotive way that humans appreciate it, must be reconsidered.
- Van Dyke, M.B. (2019). ‘A new Hawaiian Renaissance’: how a telescope protest became a movement.
- Kahanamoku, S., Alegado, R. A., Kagawa-Viviani, A., Kamelamela, K. L., Kamai, B., Walkowicz, L. M., … & Neilson, H. (2020). A Native Hawaiian-led summary of the current impact of constructing the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea.
- Prescod-Weinstein, C. (2019). The right to know and understand the night sky.