Thousands of astronomers gather in Honolulu as TMT discord looms

HONOLULU — An event described as the Super Bowl of astronomy kicks off today in Honolulu as thousands of scientists descend on the Hawaii Convention Center for the biggest meeting of the year for American astronomers.

With the high-profile Thirty Meter Telescope controversy continuing to rage in Hawaii, it would be no surprise if the attendees are greeted by anti-TMT demonstrators.


That’s what happened four years ago when the world’s largest astronomy convention, the International Astronomical Union General Assembly, convened at the same venue.

This year’s convention, which runs through Wednesday, is the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society. More than 3,400 astronomers, educators and students are planning to take in numerous presentations, panels, lectures, town halls, exhibits and the unveiling of new discoveries.

Organizers said the meeting is shaping up to be the biggest and busiest in the society’s 120-year history.

Anti-TMT organizer Laulani Teale said TMT opponents have asked the event’s organizers to let them address the convention.

“We want to make sure the astronomers get the correct information,” Teale said. “We want them to know what it really means to align science with indigenous protection. Hopefully, we will find people who can understand that stopping the TMT is the first step in that alignment.”

Teale said the convention hasn’t responded to the request yet, but she did acknowledge it was made at the last minute.

“We’ve been a little busy on the mountain,” she said.

For the last five months, protesters have been blocking Maunakea Access Road to prevent construction of the $1.4 billion project, planned as one of the world’s most powerful telescopes and highly anticipated within the astronomy community.

Last week Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim gave his personal guarantee there would be no attempt to move TMT equipment up the mountain to start construction in January or February, and the demonstrators agreed, moving to the side of the road.

According to the convention’s web page, the American Astronomical Society plans to engage the controversy directly with a series of panels and presentations.

Among other things, there will be special sessions to discuss “Innovative Collaborations of Integrity With the Hawaiian Community,” “The Many Facets of Hawaii Astronomy” and “Astronomy and Culture Best Practices for Systematic Transformation in an Increasingly Diverse and Interconnected Global Society.”

No one who is directly involved in the ongoing protest appears to be involved in the sessions.

In a news release, society President Megan Donahue of Michigan State University said the controversy is about much more than the construction of a new telescope on a mountain many Hawaiians consider sacred.

“It’s also about the historical mistreatment of indigenous people, the islands’ economy and many other complex and interrelated issues,” she said.

There are a number of public events, including a talk called “Physics of Po,” by Larry Kimura, UH Hilo’s College of Hawaiian Language &Hawaiian Studies, and Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Executive Director Doug Simons. The Monday presentation explores the intersection of astronomy and Hawaiian culture by examining the first 11 lines of the 2,102-line Kumulipo, a 1,000-year-old Hawaiian creation chant whose name has been translated to “beginning in deep darkness.”


On Sunday evening University of Hawaii astronomer Roy Gal will host a free star party at Ala Moana Park featuring telescopic views of Hawaii’s winter sky.

On Sunday UH Institute for Astronomy professor emerita Ann M. Boesgaard will present the Henry Norris Russell Lecture about her work using light-element abundances to test big-bang nucleosynthesis and to probe stellar structure and stellar evolution. Last year Boesgaard was awarded the 2019 Henry Norris Russell Lectureship, the society’s top award, bestowed each year on the basis of a lifetime of eminence in astronomical research.

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