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Tradition vs. Education Maunakea and TMT

(or, a love-letter to a childhood observatory)

First and foremost, I think telescopes are awesome. More than telescopes, I love observatories. And I love planetariums. I have a child with whom, someday, I would love to share the wonders of the Universe.

I’m exactly who the TMT is being built for.

When I imagine giant telescopes, I can only think of the Griffith Observatory. I grew up loving that place. Built Art Deco during the depression as a WPA project, the building itself is beautiful and perfectly caps a park of rolling green. Old Hollywood as much as the Hollywood sign itself, the Observatory evokes an era where the government reinvested our tax dollars into learning and art and public spaces, to inspire us to better ourselves through math and science.

Pretty much every year we all got on a school bus and took a field trip to the Observatory. But it was more than just a telescope, there was a whole museum set up. A planetarium where we would watch (often the same) tour of the universe that would inspire me to sleep with a “Glow-in-the-dark” star map over my bed. We would listen to the stories of Orion and his dogs, fighting Taurus to rescue the Pleiades enough to inspire me to study Greek myths, and through myths history. And next to the planetarium was the Tesla coil where electricity would arc untamed, the pendulum that would move forever with the earth, and countless manini applied science experiments that would make us run to our moms and say “I want to do that at home”.

I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed that place until I started writing this article. I can’t wait to someday take my son, and only regret that it won’t be as frequent as it might have been for me.

So last week, when I started seeing pictures on my Instagram of people blocking traffic, I wasn’t sure why anyone would do that. Higher paying jobs, better educational opportunities for our kids. Space, man, space!

But then I started educating myself.

For my parents, education was paramount. The place spirituality played in our home was less belief, more as a ritual. Science occupied the role of the base building block. Science supports facts, facts combine with logic to create an argument, argument changes the world. This is what we believe, and the way it has always been.

Everyone seems to agree we can build a telescope somewhere, and everyone also seems to agree that we should be culturally respectful as much as practicable. The argument seems to boil down only to what the definition of “culturally respectful” is.

At a five-acre footprint (that includes parking lots and land reinforcement, not simply educational venues) and 18 stories tall, that’s a huge building. 18 stories is huge. That’s taller than most Waikiki hotels. The building will functionally be a protruding horn on the highest mountain that’s visible from all over the island.

That seems obtrusive to me, and not quite culturally respectful.

Certain things are irreplaceable. There’s only one Mauna Kea, sacred or not, its a landmark of substantial historical significance. A crown of metal placed atop the mountain, so much so that it will appear in every image of this mountain from now until the end of time hardly seems worth the information we’ll gain. With the stated goal of cultural respect, how do we address the fact that much of the culture feels disrespected? This would change the skyline – forever.

As I get older and start to realize my time on this Earth is limited, I realize that knowing everything is no longer as important to me as before. Knowledge is no longer as important to me as enjoyment. I would rather watch a butterfly flutter by, then slice it open to see how the organs work. The death of the butterfly is worthless to me than the knowledge about the butterfly. Now I find many pearls of wisdom are worth so little, the cost is no longer worth the gain. Would I kill one person to cure Breast Cancer today? Absolutely. Would I kill one person to cure Male Pattern Baldness? Probably not.

The hang-up with the TMT at Mauna Kea is not one of the values, but the weighing of those values. We recognize both as important and differ only in which is worth more: what the mountain can teach us about the sky, or maintaining the mountain as it is so generations in the future can experience it the same way, unadulterated.

If to learn about water flow, we needed to staunch Niagara Falls, we wouldn’t do it. We wouldn’t build a giant industrial fan inside the arch at Mt. Zion national park in order to study wind. Very little is as important as water and wind, but the margin on the information isn’t worth the destruction of natural beauty. Much like Mauna Kea.

On the other hand, if the only Unobtanium factory in the universe had to be built by destroying the Dome of the Rock and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, you can bet I’d block traffic in order to make that not happen. I’d be arrested for blocking traffic right now. Davening might simply be a ritual, but its a ritual that means the universe to a lot of people that mean the universe to me. Maybe we forgo studying the moon and stars since we already know the moon-and-stars of our hearts. Maybe Dayenu, that is enough.

Background music.

But America is a country of tradition and in particular the tradition of going higher bigger and larger. The history of America is exploration, conquering, destroying first, and asking questions later. As a relatively young country, America often has the attitude of doing what is daring rather than safe, counting on American ingenuity to solve the side effects before those effects kill us. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Only after creating the Atomic bomb J. Robert Oppenheimer reflected “I am become death, destroyer of worlds”. Not every bit of knowledge is worth knowing. This isn’t an argument to be ignorant, but instead an argument to weigh what is important.

Before we cross the gates of no return.

Tradition vs. Education. Rather than dwell on destructive traditions, let’s educate ourselves to not repeat mistakes of the past. Let’s not sacrifice our children’s access to a beautiful mountain, in exchange for scientists access to the answers to questions an ordinary person has never asked. Before we build the TMT let’s take a deep breath and not cut off our piko to spite our hearts.