"On top of the mountain, people are too close to God."
December 7, 2015 10:34 AM   Subscribe

The planned Thirty Meter Telescope will be a $1.4 billion observatory that can look 13 billion light years away and see the biosignatures of planets outside our solar system. Or at least, it might be -- its construction has been delayed and further work is not certain to happen, due to indigenous Hawaiian concerns about the site desecrating Mauna Kea.

Opponents of the project won a ruling from the state Supreme Court last week on procedural grounds -- the state land board did not conduct a contested case hearing before issuing a construction permit. The land board will hold a contested case hearing and reconsider the permit. Gizmodo gives more details on the project and the controversy.
posted by Etrigan (57 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Previously
posted by Drinky Die at 10:41 AM on December 7, 2015


“Mauna Kea is an origins place,” Kealoha Pisciotta, a spokeswoman for the native Hawaiian organization Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, told Gizmodo. “It is not a realm for mankind, but a realm where we go to learn the ways of the heavens.”

Hopefully the natives and the science can work together so both can co-exist on the mountain. It would be an incredible shame for either to have to give way to the other.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:42 AM on December 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


“It is not a realm for mankind, but a realm where we go to learn the ways of the heavens.”

So the we in that statement isn't part of mankind? A giant telescope seems like a pretty good way to learn about the heavens.
posted by zeoslap at 10:45 AM on December 7, 2015 [14 favorites]


Yeah, but - my own feelings - you can do a lot of neat science with the big mirrors up there, and you can also do a pretty much unlimited amount of other neat science without it. But the place itself is unique, and I'm OK with keeping it how it is and not absolutely needing to put a big science thing on it. Even as much as I like big science things.
posted by Wolfdog at 10:46 AM on December 7, 2015 [7 favorites]


Mauna Kea is putting astronomers in a rough spot, as there isn't really another good northern spot for top-class telescopes. There's San Pedro Martir in Baja California and the Canary Islands, but that's about it. If Mauna Kea is closed off to astronomical development, space telescopes are going to have to start shouldering much of the cutting-edge northern hemisphere workload.
posted by miguelcervantes at 10:46 AM on December 7, 2015 [11 favorites]


The gizmodo article is nice in that it talks about astronomers and protesters wanting a compromise, and also about how the current plans would prevent traditional use of the mountain (as, ironically, it would block people from being able to see the stars). I recommend people check it out -- it seems like it tries to move away from the "science vs. religion" frame I keep seeing being put on this issue.
To some astronomers, the price of building another observatory on Mauna Kea if an accord cannot be reached is simply too great. “To me, as a New Zealander, Native Hawaiian objections to astronomy on Mauna Kea look very similar to deeply held Māori positions on the use of the natural environment, which reflects the two cultures common Polynesian roots,” astrophysicist Richard Easther of the University of Auckland told Gizmodo in an email. “I hope that this latest development is an opportunity for dialogue and understanding, not just litigation—I wouldn’t want to see the TMT built at the end of a bitterly contested process.”

Even to cultural practitioners who oppose the observatory, this isn’t a black-and-white issue. Many native Hawaiians work closely with astronomers—Pisciotta herself was a telescope operator for over a decade. Time and again, she’s forced to defend her people against accusations that they’re anti-science. “If you wanted to build a hospital up there, we would still fight you—but it doesn’t mean we’re against healthcare,” Pisciotta said. “This is a land use issue.”
posted by jaguar at 10:50 AM on December 7, 2015 [20 favorites]


What it boils down to is the size of the new telescope is huge and would obstruct part of the sky for Hawaiians. This would prevent them from doing certain rituals and/or ceremonies.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:53 AM on December 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


Or at least I that's what I think the core disagreement is on this particular telescope. Currently there's 13 telescopes of various sizes on the mountain and no doubt that rankles the locals also.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:21 AM on December 7, 2015


I don;t know how to say it without sounding cynical when I side with the Native Hawaiians 100% and think they're justified in acting this way, but I suspect what's really liable to prevent them from certain rituals and ceremonies on Mauna Kea is that they're being gentrified onto the mainland, that the telescope is one of the very few levers they have with which to press their interests (so of course they're going to use it), and that effective measures to address their displacement would make their objections to the telescope much easier to address.
posted by ocschwar at 11:24 AM on December 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's worth noting that Mauna Kea already hosts over a dozen telescopes, and has for decades.
posted by kickingtheground at 11:37 AM on December 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


You can find the source documents (application, assessments, permits, court opinions) online here.
posted by kanewai at 11:43 AM on December 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


But the place itself is unique, and I'm OK with keeping it how it is and not absolutely needing to put a big science thing on it. Even as much as I like big science things.

It's already covered with big science things, and that's part of what makes it unique. It's really impressive, actually, how big and how numerous the science things on the summit of Mauna Kea already are. Almost as impressive, in fact, as how extremely fucking cold it is up there, and how quickly one's brain turns to mush with the lack of oxygen. It's a very good place for telescopes, and not a very good place for much of anything else.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:46 AM on December 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's worth noting that Mauna Kea already hosts over a dozen telescopes, and has for decades.

The linked article notes that with the construction of this latest telescope they'll close three others.

Is there any way to compromise on this so that the local group is satisfied?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:04 PM on December 7, 2015


Because I'm not completely comfortable with any local group putting a stop to a peaceful device that will benefit all of mankind.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:05 PM on December 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


If we had a space elevator, this wouldn't be an issue.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:13 PM on December 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


I am very conflicted about this.
posted by sfts2 at 12:23 PM on December 7, 2015


Don't be ridiculous, you can't fit a 30 meter telescope in an elevator.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:24 PM on December 7, 2015 [7 favorites]


Don't be ridiculous, you can't fit a 30 meter telescope in an elevator.

Allow me to present my plan for the Thirty-One Meter Elevator.
posted by Etrigan at 12:25 PM on December 7, 2015 [12 favorites]


Oh, man, I'm in Hawaii and this is not a "make sure I get some money too" issue at all. Gizmodo really does do a decent job of breaking down the situation. Native Hawaiians (and their supporters) feel very strongly that their rights are being trampled on here. There may be solutions that can address both sides - indeed, when the situation first appeared on the radar, the first response from Hawaiians was "can we talk about this?" and the response was sort of "no we already got the permits we're just going to go ahead and start building." So even if the end result of all of this is that it gets things back to a discussion that should have happened right from the start, its a move in the correct direction.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:42 PM on December 7, 2015 [10 favorites]


Because I'm not completely comfortable with any local group putting a stop to a peaceful device that will benefit all of mankind.

I've been wanting to put a satellite launching complex on the current site of the Vatican. You don't suppose I should listen to the objections of any interested local group, do you?
posted by happyroach at 12:45 PM on December 7, 2015 [8 favorites]


That depends; is the Vatican one of a very small number of locations on the entire planet where a satellite launching complex could be built? If so, it might make sense to move it.
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:47 PM on December 7, 2015 [7 favorites]


The solution is simple and obvious. Give an equal amount $1.4 billion directly or in the form of local development, and then maybe they will see fit to talk. It's only fair, and not an amount that's difficult to muster since these scientists are so embedded with capital anyways.
posted by polymodus at 12:51 PM on December 7, 2015


these scientists are so embedded with capital anyways

hahahaha
haah
ha
h
posted by lalochezia at 12:55 PM on December 7, 2015 [14 favorites]


It's easy to laugh dismissively if you haven't read the paper/talk linked in yesterday's post, The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work.

Science is not value neutral and this one is a perfect example of practising scientists implicitly devaluing and disregarding the social subsidy from which the enterprise of science is situated. Just read the damn paper if you're gonna laugh, I guarantee it will wipe your smirk off.
posted by polymodus at 1:15 PM on December 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Multicultural settler colonialism and indigenous struggle in Hawai'i: The politics of astronomy on Mauna a Wakea - Dr. Joseph Salazar, 2014. Political Science.

"This dissertation argues the struggle over Mauna Kea is emblematic of the larger struggle over Hawai'i. This is not a struggle for equality, participation, money, or recognition, but is instead a struggle over meaning and its making. I argue that the latest push for another telescope takes place in the broader context of multicultural settler colonialism under U.S. occupation: realized through law and rationalized by science. The dissertation intervenes in conventional discourses, staging a different conversation about the issue; one that interrogates the collusion of science, capital, law, and the state and the processes by which the University of Hawai'i becomes a steward of the land and Kanaka'Oiwi become obstructions to progress. I argue science, capital, and law are mobilized in ways that vindicate astronomy expansion in a liberal multicultural vision of “coexistence” that maintains rather than challenges hegemonic relations of power.

"Through archival research, formal interviews, discourse analysis, and participant observation I examine the politics of telescopes on the sacred mountain of Mauna a Wakea, the namesake of our ancestor-akua to whom all Kanaka trace our genealogies. I show how the mountain is not only sacred because, as some suggest, it provides a means by which to advance political interests, but rather because the mountain is the embodiment of an ancestor in a landbased ontogenealogical relationship that informs contemporary articulations of aloha'aina, anti-colonial work, indigeneity, the natural, and the sacred. My thesis is that the forms of power operative in astronomy expansion and the call for a moratorium on new telescope development become intelligible when located in the broader context of indigenous struggle against settler colonialism and U.S. empire in Hawai'i – when Kanaka'Oiwi are respected and heard on our own terms."

(let me know if you want a copy for academic discussion)
posted by ChuraChura at 1:22 PM on December 7, 2015 [12 favorites]


Mauna a wakea: an exhaustive list of resources regarding TMT and Mauna Kea

Protecting Mauna A Wakea: The Space Between Science and Spirituality
Take a moment to pause from your busy day and think about the most sacred place that you are connected to, the place that brings you peace and accepts your prayers. The place where your god dwells, very likely the place where your grandparents and their parents once prayed: the place you would safeguard with all of your might, with all that you are and all that you have. If you said the holy name of that place out loud, what would it be? Would it be the name of a church, or temple, a chapel you hold dear? Say it — utter its name out loud as I do. My church, my temple, my mountain: Mauna A wakea — Mauna Kea
(via Dr. Prescod-Weinstein)
posted by ChuraChura at 1:27 PM on December 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


ChuraChura, I loved the "The Space Between Science and Spirituality" piece. Thank you for sharing it.
posted by jaguar at 1:34 PM on December 7, 2015


a different conversation about the issue; one that interrogates the collusion of science, capital, law, and the state and the processes by which the University of Hawai'i becomes a steward of the land and Kanaka'Oiwi become obstructions to progress.

Precisely one of the key points in yesterday's post as well. Too often the dynamic is scientists paying lip service to the notion of ethical science, because whenever careers are at personal stake - where an ethical choice matters the most - is where all bets are off, allowing intellectual workers to turn the blind eye. The author talks about this sobering aspect in the entire second half.
posted by polymodus at 2:08 PM on December 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


> It's easy to laugh dismissively if you haven't read the paper/talk linked in yesterday's post, The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work.

But we're talking about astronomers. To claim that astronomers "are so embedded with capital anyways" is, in fact, ridiculous.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:42 PM on December 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


This is, inevitably, a difficult and complex problem.

It's not just that there are few other excellent Northern hemisphere options; both San Pedro de Martir and La Palma are considerably worse sites than Mauna Kea. Not being able to place large telescopes there in the future will mean that we're effectively ceding half the sky for cutting-edge astronomy (it will be difficult at best to convince people to put a billion-dollar telescope at anywhere besides the best places in the world; a smaller telescope at a better site would be able to do as much science).

That said, I think it is undoubtably true that TMT could have worked a lot more to build wide support for the project in Hawai'i, incorporate local opinions (rather than just science optimization) for the siting of the telescope on the mountain, etc. rather than just focusing on what they needed to do to get past governmental hurdles. It's clear that everyone involved assumed this was just another telescope on Mauna Kea and they just needed to pass the same processes as for other projects on the mountain (e.g., identifying another telescope to tear down to keep the total number constant). That hasn't proven to be the case.

I don't know where this is going to end up; some protesters are driven by desires for greater Hawaiian sovereignty that no changes to TMT could address, for instance. My best guess is that ultimately TMT will end up being done in Chile instead of Hawai'i.

You can see the domes of the telescopes on Mauna Kea from across the island. That's always been both a little impressive and a little sad to me (speaking as an astronomer who's spent many nights using the Keck telescopes).
posted by janewman at 3:01 PM on December 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've been wanting to put a satellite launching complex on the current site of the Vatican. You don't suppose I should listen to the objections of any interested local group, do you?

I was born into the Catholic church and am ok with ignoring them on a whole slew of issues.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:07 PM on December 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh, man, I'm in Hawaii and this is not a "make sure I get some money too" issue at all. Gizmodo really does do a decent job of breaking down the situation. Native Hawaiians (and their supporters) feel very strongly that their rights are being trampled on here. There may be solutions that can address both sides - indeed, when the situation first appeared on the radar, the first response from Hawaiians was "can we talk about this?" and the response was sort of "no we already got the permits we're just going to go ahead and start building." So even if the end result of all of this is that it gets things back to a discussion that should have happened right from the start, its a move in the correct direction.

I'm also in Hawaii, and my impression is it's much more nuanced than that.

The most visible Native Hawaiian position is the one that's anti-TMT, Mauna Kea is sacred, etc. Those folks have a point, but I've heard multiple people of Native Hawaiian descent say to me that they can't voice the less visible position for fear of retribution and conflict within their communities.

That less visible position is: astronomy, knowledge seeking, and exploration are all integral parts of the Native Hawaiian tradition. There's not a schoolkid on these islands that doesn't know all about the Hokule‘a and how the people who crew it like Nainoa Thompson basically had to relearn how to navigate by the stars (The Bishop Museum does an amazing job with this story, btw - over multiple exhibits, in its planetarium, etc.). BTW, you know all those "Eddie Would Go" shirts and bumper stickers? Eddie Aikau died when trying to paddle on his board to get help after the Hokule`a capsized in a storm in the channel off Molokai.

Knowledge seeking/exploration are a big deal because it changes the narrative. It's not that a bunch of savages were blown across the Pacific and accidentally landed on some islands here and there. Rather, these people were much more advanced than previously thought. They went out looking for these islands. They knew how to find them. And as a result they spread their culture and language (for example, eye is some variation of "mata" across most languages found in the Pacific basin) across vast, vast distances.

Also, Neil deGrasse Tyson's comments on the TMT:

So if you feel strongly and deeply, spiritually, about a mountain and its relationship to your culture and what it means, consider that it’s not just a piece of hardware up there. It actually has a goal that, for me, is one of the most noble pursuits that our species has ever undertaken. I’m not in the middle of those conversations, I’d rather let those resolve themselves, the people who run the institution and the local people. I’m not a Hawaii resident, so I don’t have the background to speak intelligently or with the right combination of awareness and sensitivity that others surely do who are out there — I’m just saying that there are a lot of things one could do on a mountain, you might imagine, but trying to understand our place in the universe, that’s a pretty good one.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 3:43 PM on December 7, 2015 [18 favorites]


And all that is a great reason to build the telescope and an even better reason for there to have been a conversation right from the start. I believe in my heart that excluding people from conversations about things that impact them is a surefire way to make sure that they oppose those things - even if those things are ultimately good for them too.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:04 PM on December 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


OH MY GOD Neil deGrasse Tyson we GET IT. You're sane and reasonable and fucking awesome. Jeez, would it KILL you to like snap at a waiter or something?
posted by Etrigan at 4:27 PM on December 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


I've been wanting to put a satellite launching complex on the current site of the Vatican

urbi et orbit?
posted by pyramid termite at 4:28 PM on December 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't see any mention of whether the money should be spent on space telescopes which would finesse the issues. There's no construction without corruption in matters such as this. This earthly construction to study the stars strikes me as a waste of money. Put the telescopes in space. cheers.
posted by SteveLaudig at 6:47 PM on December 7, 2015


SteveLaudig: if you want to put TMT in space we're talking numbers more on the order of $100 billion or $1 trillion than $1 billion. As an example of the amount of money required: WFIRST-AFTA, a 2.5m diameter telescope, will run something like $2 billion all told (and that's with major components provided for free to NASA by the National Reconaissance Office). Space mission costs basically scale as weight, which goes as diameter cubed, which would imply 1728x more money for a thirty meter. We might optimistically imagine we could do it for only a factor of diameter^2 (i.e., ~$300 billion), but that's not so likely.

I know some people here think astronomers are swimming in money, but c'mon :)
posted by janewman at 6:59 PM on December 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Take a moment to pause from your busy day and think about the most sacred place that you are connected to, the place that brings you peace and accepts your prayers. The place where your god dwells, very likely the place where your grandparents and their parents once prayed: the place you would safeguard with all of your might, with all that you are and all that you have. If you said the holy name of that place out loud, what would it be?

As an atheist I feel like this wasn't intended to be a trick question...
posted by Sangermaine at 8:22 PM on December 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is, like, literally the plot to Clarke's The Fountains Of Paradise, right?
posted by sourwookie at 8:36 PM on December 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Take a moment to pause from your busy day and think about the most sacred place that you are connected to, the place that brings you peace and accepts your prayers. The place where your god dwells, very likely the place where your grandparents and their parents once prayed: the place you would safeguard with all of your might, with all that you are and all that you have. If you said the holy name of that place out loud, what would it be?

As an atheist I feel like this wasn't intended to be a trick question...


I'm an atheist as well but I wouldn't necessarily want an 18 story high structure in Yosemite Valley or Yellowstone. I think that out of all of actual things to discuss here, snarky atheism is some of the least interesting.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 9:53 PM on December 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


OH MY GOD Neil deGrasse Tyson we GET IT. You're sane and reasonable and fucking awesome. Jeez, would it KILL you to like snap at a waiter or something?

Well, he's a bit of a showoff at the gym.
posted by Drinky Die at 10:05 PM on December 7, 2015


This is, like, literally the plot to Clarke's The Fountains Of Paradise, right?

More or less, yeah. Due to uneven gravitational field strength at various equatorial mountains on the planet, a fictionally-300-miles-south-of-actual Sri Lankan summit is the *only* place in the world suitable to act as an anchor for a space elevator. The summit is occupied by a temple actively inhabited by a centuries-old order of monks who refuse to leave.

The way the situation resolves in that case is pretty cool...

---SPOILERS---

A visiting student of the order and world-renowned scientist with a spiritual streak takes it upon himself to steadfastly oppose the project, and ends up getting the would-be architect fired. Mars Colony is interested in picking up the idea since they've got 1/3rd the gravity and Deimos is almost perfectly situated to act as a counterweight, so they can do it on the cheap and offer the deposed architect the job. He manages to get the world court to permit a *brief* test just anchoring a simple experimental line to the summit, as a bit of a "fuck you, I'll be back" to the monks.

Meanwhile, the opposing scientist has been revolutionizing microclimatology up in the huge orbital weather control space stations, and very specifically triggers a hundred-mile wind during the final approach phase of the test wire's descending spool glider. Succeeds in snapping the test line, but inadvertently triggers some secondary ground winds that push a massive swarm of butterflies up to the summit, fulfilling a local legend/prophecy that the temple will remain until the souls of a centuries-dead local warlord's armies, trapped in the butterflies of the mountain, regain the summit. The monks immediately abandon their temple, and the way is cleared for the Earth elevator to begin construction.

Image of Sri Pada, the real-world temple.
posted by Ryvar at 11:42 PM on December 7, 2015


> It's easy to laugh dismissively if you haven't read the paper/talk linked in yesterday's post, The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work.

But we're talking about astronomers. To claim that astronomers "are so embedded with capital anyways" is, in fact, ridiculous.


No, that's why you too should read that paper.
posted by polymodus at 12:25 AM on December 8, 2015


> "Space mission costs basically scale as weight, which goes as diameter cubed, which would imply 1728x more money for a thirty meter."

Also, have fun taking a trip to the L2 Point every time you want to install a new filter.
posted by kyrademon at 3:34 AM on December 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


it's perhaps worth pointing out that there's nothing special about the northern hemisphere for most astronomical work (it's a fundamental tenet of cosmology that the universe is, on large enough scales, isotropic). so the argument "there's nothing else good for the northern hemisphere" doesn't carry a huge amount of weight.

of course, southern sites have socio-political issues with land use, too.

also, space and land-based telescopes are good at different things (for a given finite amount of money).

finally, one reason i am an ex-astronomer is because i, personally, don't think it's a good investment for society, as a whole. the returns seem pretty minimal, to me.
posted by andrewcooke at 5:09 AM on December 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


If you are an ex-astronomer then you know the difference between astronomy and cosmology and know you are making a specious argument there.
posted by Zalzidrax at 7:31 AM on December 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


please explain your argument more? because in my experience there's little difference at the professional level. i called myself an astronomer (my phd is from the "institute of astronomy") and worked on absorption systems towards high redshift quasars. those observations had cosmologically interesting interpretations. it didn't matter one bit whether the quasars were in the northern or southern hemisphere.
posted by andrewcooke at 7:47 AM on December 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


For abundant, distant objects, like quasars, Northern vs. Southern mostly doesn't matter.

For studying the Milky Way (where we see different portions of the Galaxy in the two hemispheres) or rare objects (e.g. local dwarf galaxies or M31 -- and where will the next nearby supernova be? the first LIGO source?), closing off half the sky matters a lot.

Access to both hemispheres is relevant for cosmology a bit -- people are interested in whether dark energy varies on very large scales, for instance, and some cosmological tests will be basically volume-limited in the next decade, so that covering more sky is the only way to improve errors -- but TMT itself isn't really relevant for cosmology.
posted by janewman at 8:22 AM on December 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


Astrophysicist Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has spoken out many times on the need to decolonize STEM.

It seems to me that stolen land being a rare opportunity for a valuable development makes it no less stolen. The existence of alternatives like space based telescopes further weakens any sympathy I have for those who want to build on Mauna Kea. Unwelcome deas of progress and advancement being imposed on an unwilling population by an external force is the very definition of colonization.
posted by subtle_squid at 10:39 AM on December 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


subtle_squid: space-based telescopes are not an alternative. They have very complementary capabilities (unless you want to put a large fraction of the total US Federal budget into them -- see the numbers above -- in which case trade-offs go away).

In the optical part of the spectrum, space-based telescopes can provide more detail due to not having to deal with the blurring of the atmosphere, but they collect less light (and hence are worse for studying faint objects) because they need to be much, much smaller to be at all affordable. In the infrared, they have much lower backgrounds (so are much more efficient for studying faint objects than ground-based telescopes -- the atmosphere radiates in the IR so it's good to get above it), but they can make out less fine detail than the planned large future telescopes (in the infrared, we have methods that can mitigate the atmospheric blurring).

Additionally, space telescopes are the only option for studying astronomical objects with gamma-ray, x-ray, ultraviolet, and longer-wavelength infrared light. In the current environment where we only get one major space-based astrophysics mission per decade at best, if you're choosing to replicate capabilities we could achieve (at considerably lower cost and risk of failure!) from the ground, you're giving up on making progress using other parts of the spectrum; there's always an opportunity cost.
posted by janewman at 10:48 AM on December 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


good to know. Lets build ground based telescopes on places that aren't holy to indigenous people.
posted by subtle_squid at 11:23 AM on December 8, 2015


In the northern hemisphere these are in very short supply, as has already been explained above subtle_squid.
posted by pharm at 12:08 PM on December 8, 2015


so.... obviously some cases can be made for northern sites, and since i don't really trust astronomers here (who likely want this), i went to dig up more info myself, finally asking someone who sits on various scientific advisory panels (ie an astronomy prof who helps decide where to build telescopes).

and their reply was surprisingly interesting.

first, it turns out the south tends to be better for a pile of things, even for galactic astronomers (there's the galactic centre - at -30 - and the SMC+LMC, for example).

but, second, the big argument for the north is the legacy of previous observations. in particular, several big, important surveys (including sloan).

since i'm writing for interested non-astronomers, i should explain in more detail why that's important. some of astronomy is "butterfly collecting" - looking for, or studying, "unusual" objects. that's often a useful first step towards framing theories, but it is difficult to "do science" with these kinds of observations, because you're never sure how much of what you see is down to crazy weird luck. so what people try to do is select similar objects using information from previous surveys. then they go look, and see if those confirm their suspicions (simplifying somewhat).

so surveys are important. and if your survey is in the north then you need telescopes in the north to do further observations on the objects in the survey.

that leaves open the lesson that should be drawn here. someone playing devil's advocate might argue that every extra telescope built in the north simply reinforces this argument. so if you're going to have some kind of limit, better to stop now...
posted by andrewcooke at 2:44 PM on December 8, 2015


andrewcooke, I think you're seriously underselling, or have been undersold on, the case for telescopes in the northern hemisphere. There genuinely is research that relies heavily on being able to see both halves of the sky, or even that particular half of the sky, and not just because of the legacy of previous surveys.

And this is not because I think this telescope Must Must Must be built on Mauna Kea. That is not actually my position on the issue. (Although neither is that it Must Not. I'd like to see a referendum, personally.) (I am not an astronomer, but I am married to one; she feels similarly.)
posted by kyrademon at 8:09 PM on December 8, 2015


andrewcooke, Sloan isn't really relevant for TMT -- anything SDSS could see you could study at good signal-to-noise in existing telescopes. Euclid (an upcoming European survey telescope in space) will have a Northern component to its footprint on the sky, though, and it would be a shame to not have deep follow-up capability for it. As I recall it's not feasible for them to only observe in the South (this is a big problem for the Euclid collaboration, as they can ultimately get the optical imaging needed for the projectin the South from LSST, but there will be nothing comparable in the Northern hemisphere).

And I'm hardly rah-rah about putting TMT in Hawai'i. I'm rather of two minds about this (I have a cousin in Hawai'i who has longstanding ties to the native Hawaiian community and is pretty strongly anti-TMT, for instance). However, I can't help but recognize the costs to astronomy that would come from losing Mauna Kea as a site for the foreseeable future, just as I can recognize the large impact that TMT would have on the mountain, and thus also on those with ties to the site.
posted by janewman at 10:46 PM on December 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


if you want to put TMT in space we're talking numbers more on the order of $100 billion or $1 trillion than $1 billion

So do a kickstarter.

Or, unless building that scope right there, right now is vital to keeping civilization running and avoiding gigadeaths, build the scopes in Chile for now. Then wait for the technology to mature until lower altitude scopes get the same resolution, or we can put something big in orbit cheaply. Astronomers are always doing something new with technology to overcome limitations. You'll manage.
posted by happyroach at 1:57 AM on December 9, 2015




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