I can locate the big dipper, the stars of Orion’s belt (I think), and yeah, I’m totally confident about locating the moon. But that about sums up my knowledge of astronomy. Maybe I’m a freak of astronomic ignorance, but then again, maybe I share something of the public’s unawareness of what goes on up in the sky and what motivates the people who study those things.
Our ancestors used the natural world around them as templates for thinking about their cultures. The heavens were particularly important to them, telling them where they were in the calendar, in planting and fishing cycles, or out on the ocean. This kind of astronomical observation, called by a variety of terms, ordered their experience of life.
Modern life has lost this reliance on the sky and we correspondingly pay less attention to astronomy than our ancestors did unless it slaps us right up against the head. Space launches and fly-by asteroids do that, they demand our attention. Also insisting on our attention is the brouhaha we’ve experienced around the astronomy industry here in Hawai‘i the last few years. Lines seem to have been drawn in the sand over the next phase of the industry locally, and just as differing political views have made inter-party cooperation difficult recently, the same can be said of being on opposite sides of the astronomy/TMT/Maunakea kerfuffle.
Cooperation involves understanding and respecting differing viewpoints, and to get to a grasp on if, and particularly why, astronomy matters in this time and place from the astronomer’s viewpoint, who better to go to than Doug Simons, current Director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and recently appointed as the incoming director of UH’s Institute for Astronomy.
For Simons, “It’s all a matter of values. Not everybody is into astronomy; for some, it has no value, and that’s fine, and for others — me included — it has enormous value. For me, it matters because it’s a field in which I can try for some kind of self-context and understanding about the realm in which we exist. It’s a deep curiosity about the basic questions, how the universe was created from nothing.”
Astronomy matters to others for different reasons.
“For others, it may be the value of investigating other origins for life, or it’s the technology, the mapping of other worlds,” Simons adds. “I am convinced that the exo-planets a few hundred light-years away are the first places we’ll be visiting in the future. And it’s not that far-fetched. We have spacecraft now that are highly capable, and these are the logical destinations for robots and drones. So, it’s not just research for the purposes of answering big questions, it’s modern cartography.”
The observatory Simons directs is part of the Maunakea observatory complex, home to some of the most scientifically productive telescopes in the world, making Hawai‘i a leader in astronomical science. So, naturally, the conversation comes around to astronomy in Hawai‘i.
“For some, astronomy matters because it’s providing them with a type of job not readily available elsewhere on the Big Island. Sixty to 65% of the people we employ are local hires,” according to Simon. “It’s a conscious decision to hire locally, so workforce development is a large part of our mission and we have a number of programs for that, like the Akamai Internship program, providing summer internships for college students. Eighty-eight percent of the kids in this program stay in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, and math) and something like 100 Hawaii kids have been Akamai interns.”
Another major workforce development program is the unique Maunakea Scholars program, which pairs local high school students with astronomy mentors and with precious observing time on world-class telescopes.
“I can guarantee you that no other students in the world have access to these kinds of resources,” Simons says. “And these kids aren’t all necessarily science superstars.”
There are 12 participating state high schools and “participation is actually very diverse, with one school even using the program for kids who failed to pass science. It gives them a chance to explore something they thought they had no interest in or were excluded from.”
Several years ago, Maunakea astronomers played a vital role in a groundbreaking initiative to capture the world’s first image of a black hole. Working with Hawaiian language scholar Larry Kimura, they named it Powehi, “embellished dark source of unending creation”, a construct that comes from the Kumulipo, an 18th century Hawaiian creation chant.
“What we’re doing here today,” Simons concludes, “begs the question of, if the ancient Hawaiians had the data we have now how would they interpret it?”
We’ll never know the answer to that, but today’s astronomers continue to go where many ancient astronomers have boldly, and reverently, gone before. Towards both the big questions and the practical applications.
Dennis Boyd is director of the West Hawaii Small Business Development Center. Hawaii SBDC Network is funded in part through Cooperative Agreement No # SBAHQ-20-B-0037 with the U.S. Small Business Administration and the University of Hawaii at Hilo. All opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SBA.