Astronomical Shifts

August has been an astronomy-heavy month. Last week, the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case contesting the approval of the conservation district use application (CDUA) for the Thirty Meter Telescope. The hearing came as the protectors of Mauna a Wākea have entered their 6th month blocking Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) construction on the sacred mountain following the controversial permit approval for the project. Protectors have cited decades of mismanagement by the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo and violations of a number of state laws and procedures regarding leasing of state lands, construction in conservation zones, and Hawaiian cultural rights, among other issues.

Not long before the Supreme Court hearing was held, the two-week long International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) XXIX General Assembly came to a close in Honolulu. This gathering in particular brought me a mixture of despair, hope, perspective, and resolve in regard to the many intersecting issues surrounding the TMT and where I see myself in these struggles.


Being a tremendous fan of astronomy, I was ecstatic to have an opportunity to pop in on an IAU conference. Since I was 9 years old, I’ve wanted to be an astrophysicist. I collected star charts. I had a huge binder full of illustrations and facts about everything from planets to black holes to the theoretical physics of time travel. I read everything I could about quantum theory. I taught myself physics in my spare time. I filled my extra curriculars in college with astronomy, math, and physics courses. To this day, I watch course videos on quantum mechanics just to destress my overactive mind.

Being a lover of justice, however, I was depressed at the thought that such an event would be leveraged by the (fake) state to silence oppositional voices to the TMT or misrepresent the full picture of ongoing struggles over places like Mauna a Wākea and Haleakalā to the international community.

While the IAU as an organization took no official stance on the TMT and encouraged its members to speak only as individuals or representatives of their respective institutions if they spoke to the issue at all, the talks relating directly to Hawaiʻi were both subtly and overtly geared towards reinterpreting Hawaiian history and values, and legitimizing the decision to build the TMT on Mauna a Wākea.

When I attended an IAU educational outreach event for local students, I was surprised how uncomfortable and unwelcome I was made to feel just by the looks from attendees walking throughout the Convention Center and in the exhibition hall – looks of suspicion, judgement, or snobbery (I doubt these were merely cases of BRF or RAF). It was the first time in many years I found myself interacting in a primarily white professional setting and I was sick to my stomach at how this sense of insecurity is replicated in countless work environments for people of color. The entire conference was a center of cognitive dissonance, my love of space science and cosmology juxtaposed with my abhorrence for the military industrial complex and (neo-)colonialism. The sexual undertones and body language of some of the male scientists I spoke with caught me entirely off guard. And one NASA scientist actually complimented me for being “articulate” (because I suppose even in 2015 it’s surprising and impressive that a brown person would know how to express him/herself), essentially suggesting I could “articulate” my way into a good program if I talk to the right people.

A recurring thematic framework during some of the IAU talks was this linking of the modern expansion of astronomical development in Hawaiʻi with the legacy and vision of the Polynesian voyagers who first navigated to Hawaiʻi. From the vocabulary and imagery used, it was hard not to hear a twisted implication that Polynesian values and achievements are somehow in alignment with Western colonial ones. And if you don’t believe there’s been a racist decontextualization of history and culture by proponents of the TMT, read this recent article that deconstructs some of what we’ve been seeing rather well.

As with most projects dealing with native lands and communities, tokenism has played into the debates around astronomical development in Hawaiʻi as well. Presenters at the IAU gave special emphasis on the role of Alika K. Herring in the expansion of astronomy on Mauna Kea and the fact that he was native Hawaiian. He was emotively described as “following the footsteps of his Polynesian ancestors,” and speakers played up the role that Hawaiʻi (specifically the TMT on Mauna Kea) would play in discovering an Earth-like planet that humans could theoretically colonize some 500 years from now.

In making these grandiose projections, questions of environmental and economic sustainability, rule of law, or social equality were glossed over with a brief reference to the comprehensive management plan for Mauna Kea (n.b. the plan has not actually been implemented and the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo has been continually audited for numerous legal violations since 1998). I don’t recall the number of ecologically or culturally precious landscapes aboriginal people in Polynesia or elsewhere in the world had to destroy or violently exploit in order to first settle their homelands successfully and thrive, but I think it’s somewhere close to zero. In my estimation, that’s not merely a difference of thousands of years of technological advancement; that’s a reflection of a fundamental difference in values and knowledge systems that tells you the proper relationship to have with your environment. I wonder, while many are focused on what discoveries and inter-stellar travels may be possible hundreds of years from now, if they give equally innovative consideration to what practical social, political, and environmental legacy and impact we are creating in the process. How are we honoring the best in our human intellect and morality?

When touching on the political struggles around astronomy in Hawaiʻi, one speaker commented, “The future of Mauna Kea astronomy is inextricably linked to Hawaiian culture,” noting how the Hawaiian cultural revival era coincided with astronomical development on the summit, suggesting this development has been a “continuation of [the] Polynesian history of exploration and colonization,” and calling for folks to work toward a common ground among science, culture, and environment. There is a dissertation’s worth of unpacking one could do with these statements. It’s comments like these that are emblematic of “polite white supremacy,” because what this shows is a denial (or at least no acknowledgment) of essential power dynamics, and an unspoken presumption that Hawaiian beliefs and values are really only relevant (and therefore considered valuable – or more ideally, marketable) in finding “common ground” so long as they can be made to fit with dominant Western notions of what constitutes progress. In practice, finding common ground is about who’s values and agendas take precedence over others. And in matters of development in Hawai’i in particular, rarely is it ever a question of IF something gets built, only HOW.

As if to illustrate this very issue of polite white supremacy and white washing of Hawaiian history/culture, one conference attendee (a white cis-man) made it a point to take to the mic after a Hawaiian woman had spoken to the inconsistencies of this particular presentation, to make a passive aggressive statement recommending that the entire (fake) state of Hawaiʻi should hear this “wonderful” talk via video post online, presumably to enlighten themselves about science and the “right” cultural interpretation to adopt regarding the TMT. His comment was clearly aimed at dismissing her arguments and disparaging this Hawaiian woman and those who stand with her.

I had a total nervous breakdown the night after the final IAU talk I attended, which was so dismissive of the legitimacy of the resistance to the TMT, so quick to gloss over the painful historical and contemporary realities of the U.S. occupation of these islands, so quick to selectively draw historical and cultural references and present them in such a way that those in power – those controlling the narrative and illegitimately dominating this country – could be perceived no other way than in the right (read: confirmation bias). I was spiraling in my logical and emotional minds. Isn’t it so convenient that the occupier/settler/racist’s assessments of the “facts” always ends up working out their favor. Their rationalizations, selective data collection and historical review somehow always finds them emerging as the bearer of truth, as the one carrying some noble burden to enlighten the ignorant savages. It became painfully clear to me that this debate over the TMT – and racism in STEM more generally – isn’t even about everybody agreeing on an issue or debating the merits of one argument or point of view over another. This is about an objective observation and acknowledgment of the massive, pervasive, systematic suffering at the hands of people who claim positions of authority and power – the kinds of politicians, scientist, civil servants, and educators who defend or otherwise feed into these systems of subtle and overt oppression. People literally want to kill themselves because of specific things they say and do and how it directly feeds into these systems of psychological, social, economic, and political disempowerment. Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein articulated this dynamic beautifully and succinctly via her twitter feed. I speak from personal and professional experience, and this kind of aggregated experiential knowledge is relevant data. Too many people grow up in fear, disenfranchisement, self-loathing, and despair for themselves and their children because they lack agency and control over their own lands. Because they cannot live truly free in a way that is consistent with their basic human rights, values, and knowledge systems. It has made me want. to. end. my. life. How can anyone be so lacking in vision, compassion, self-awareness to take this seriously? Where is the humanity, the critical eye turned inward?

I can understand entropy and thermodynamics. I can understand general relativity and Schrödinger’s cat paradox. I cannot understand the psychology and pervasiveness of misogyny and racism and the misery it brings to all life on this planet. No ground-breaking cosmic discoveries are going to bring us any closer to solving this fundamental disconnect in our basic human values.


In spite of the structural violence, racism, and sexism played out through the IAU conference and the larger discourse around the TMT, I was so profoundly moved and inspired by the many astronomers I met through the IAU and social media who are so keenly aware of these issues and are working to build greater awareness, accountability, and equity in STEM. The kind of astronomers who attended a special meeting to learn from Hawaiian cultural practitioners about the historical and cultural significance of Mauna a Wākea. The kind of astronomers who actually called out their colleagues for their racist remarks and mansplaining. The kind of astronomers who shared tea and snacks with the protectors on the mauna. The kind of astronomers who invited me to breakfast (twice!) to offer their experiences, knowledge, perspectives, and encouragement. Oddly enough, it never occurred to me that such communities existed in the field of astronomy.

I am filled with so much gratitude and love for the people doing this work and calling for more dialogue on these issues. After the political/social science trajectory I took in my recent academic and professional career and now looking back at my childhood dream to pursue astronomy, I see that dream through such a painful lens that reveals the colonial legacy built into the culture of modern science, its intersections with occupation and genocide, and the assimilation agenda that tells me I have to compromise my values, culture, and identity to be a legitimate lover of truth and progress. At the same time, my liberal arts training and breadth of experiences have now allowed me to see astronomy as something I can actually pursue in relationship to justice issues. I am liberated in the realization of the practical and philosophical value and perspective that astronomy can still add to my life and work in my community. This struggle on Mauna a Wākea has been an invaluable gift at this juncture in time – an opportunity for connection, fundamental shifts, and groves of koa to begin to sprout.



9 thoughts on “Astronomical Shifts

  1. Mahalo nui iā ʻoe, e Emily ē. Thank you so much for writing this brave piece. I won’t say that I can understand what you felt going into that conference and dealing with what you did, but that is such a powerful example of koa. I won’t write too long of a comment because there’s so much to say and you probably already have a good network around you, but know too that you have supporters over at our little blog as well. E ʻonipaʻa kākou ē.

    me ke aloha,

  2. I often think that science can get so caught up believing its (supposed) universal, empirical and unbiased values that it dismisses any hint it might be acting in any other ways. It’s great to hear that there is support for change within the astro community though.

  3. Thank you for these very insightful passionate thoughts about the controversy. This is a difficult issue for someone who loves astronomy and is within the debate. The discovery of the wonders of the Universe and the cosmos is one of the greatest and most important in human history. The fate of the human race is also dependent on this knowledge. Telescopes are the most important instruments to acquire the knowledge.
    The TMT is one of the three most advanced telescopes ever built. There are very few sites for these telescopes to be built. The US is one of the world leaders in astronomy and physics. Shopping malls and development cause more environmental damage than telescopes. Hopefully the issue can be resolved peacefully. The Hawaiian islands are incredibly beautiful and and being able to observe the wonders of the universe from them seems like a spiritual event. But the lives of people living on the islands are also important. I Hope Emily can achieve the dream to become an astronomer.

  4. I am curious why the fate of the human race is dependent on the knowledge from telescopes. I can see how space exploration has resulted in technologies that are applied in other ways but still our survival as a species will be dictated by how well we understand our immediate environment. It is dangerous escapism to abandon our responsibility to this planet for a pipedream of settling someplace else. I feel comfortable saying that anyone who believes that humanity can adapt to someplace other than Earth is a fool. I am willing to say that pure curiosity is reason enough to want to explore the heavens but it is not reason enough to denigrate sacred places.

  5. Mahalo Emily K for this insightful article.
    Most importantly, Mauna Kea area is a Conservation Zone; a zone that has been repeatedly compromised by the Univ. of Hawai’i.
    Each large telescope on Maui and Hawai’i has a history of the local community opposition to construction, dynamiting, and bulldozing of the mountaintops.
    The sneaky and bullish strategy of big-money management of Thirty Meter Telescope (as well as the other 13 large telescope,)
    was to build them as quickly as possible, (before receiving any legal clearance of the Conservation Zone,) hoping no one would challenge the rushed job.
    When the people of Hawai’i oppose the rushed construction, corporate attorneys are sent to Hawaii to make arguments in court that their mega bucks have already been spent on building a new telescope, therefore it would be a waste to stop.
    But that’s their problem for rushing ahead and assuming (hoping) the local community would just shut up.
    So, corporate bullies have won in court using this aggressive strategy.
    But they won’t get their way this time.

  6. Fabulous article, Emily, and please do not despair, ever. Despair is not a winning strategy, no matter what the issue. You are precious, as is life itself. Never forget that! I too love astronomy, but I love justice more, both the concept and my grandson of that name. The system of oppression is brittle–hard but fragile, like a strand of spaghetti or a chopstick. The arrogance of those in power is nearly as great as their technology, but it will be their Achilles heel.

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