The Thirty Meter Telescope Can Show Us the Universe. But at What Cost? – The New York Times

Kealoha Pisciotta, who was a physics major and then a telescope systems specialist on Mauna Kea for 12 years until 2003, has experienced the devaluation of her culture firsthand. She is the founder and president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou (People Who Pray for the Mountain), one of the lead groups in the protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope. For the last 15 years, she has advocated indigenous celestial traditions by practicing and teaching them.

Members of the Royal Order of Kamehameha, representing Hawaiis indigenous dynasty, asked Ms. Pisciotta to help build and align a lele, a ceremonial site, on the summit of Mauna Kea. This lele included a platform for equinox and solstice rituals.

In the past, similar structures and ceremonies may have been used to measure an astronomical effect called the precession of the equinoxes. This is the wobble of the earths axis that slowly changes the positions of stars. For example, 1,000 years ago, Polaris was not at true north, but five degrees away, equivalent to 300 miles on the earths surface. Tracking the effect of the precession on star positions is crucial to accurate navigation over long time scales. Native Hawaiians understood this and incorporated observations into their navigational practices.

As Ms. Pisciotta wrote in 2011 in court testimony against continued construction on Mauna Kea, her lele was continually destroyed. Each time this happened, she rebuilt it.

Kep Maly, a Hawaiian historian, speculates that the top of Mauna Kea was at one time a traditional observation platform for celestial objects, intended as an observatory with raised stones to mark the positions of rising and setting stars. There is a temple, Koa Heiau Holomoana, on the Kohala coast of the Big Island, was most likely a site for the study of the stars for navigation.

Native Hawaiian astronomy is both ancient and new, and is deeply tied to Polynesian traditions of navigating long distances over the Pacific Ocean, using the stars as guides. By the time Captain Cook landed in Hawaii in 1778, long-distance navigation from Tahiti to Hawaii had ceased. Over the next 200 years, traditional astronomy and navigation, while preserved in oral histories, slowly faded from memory.

That began to change in the 1970s with the founding of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and the construction of the Hokulea, a voyaging canoe made to replicate long-distance seafaring canoes of the past. With this boat, indigenous astronomy went from an ancient memory to a modern-day practice.

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The Thirty Meter Telescope Can Show Us the Universe. But at What Cost? - The New York Times

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