(BIVN) – It has been over a week since the observatories on Mauna Kea shutdown due to safety concerns, as thousands gather at the base of the mountain in opposition to the planned Thirty Meter Telescope project.
Doug Simons, the Executive Director of the existing Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, reflected on the situation during an interview conducted in Hilo on Tuesday.
“It was about a week or so ago that we decided to remove all the staff from Maunakea, about two dozen people altogether,” Simons said. “It’s a challenge to make that possible. And that was done as a unanimous decision by all the directors out of concern for safe access for our staff to be able to go up and down, and in anticipation of TMT starting construction.”
“Since then, we’ve obviously been not operating on the summit,” he said. “We haven’t had staff up there. At nighttime there are no observations being conducted. It’s a very unusual feeling, if you will.”
Simons said they have been “shut down for weather purposes, maybe for many weeks at a time, but never by choice. And that’s what’s actually occurring now.”
“It’s stressful on the staff, in the sense that we’re not clear when we’re going to actually be able to resume normal operations,” Simons said. “Nobody’s clear how the conflict is going to get resolved, and we’re looking for a peaceful resolution, obviously. But that lack of clarity, over time, kind of eats at you, so to speak. We watch it closely.”
Simons talked about an open letter he recently co-signed, the intended audience of which, he says, “was the international science community, the astronomy community.”
“It wasn’t designed to be a rebuttal to other letters floating around within the international astronomy community pertaining to the conflict,” Simons said. “We wanted to offer our perspective. The situation here is way more complicated, nuanced – layer upon layer. Anybody whose lived in Hawaiʻi a long time understands that.”
Simons said there was one letter last week that had several hundred signatures, and said he believes “most of the signatories are in fact graduate students. It’s a little frustrating because sometimes, in the general media, it’s referred to as astronomers being opposed to TMT. Maybe I’m old-fashioned but if you’re still a student… you don’t have that title just yet. Their opinions are, obviously, very important, but the reality is that letter, we thought, was in some ways a misrepresentation of what was occurring here.”
The open letter that Simons co-signed “mentioned the A Hua He Inoa program,” he said, “which is the program that we launched a couple years ago intended to associate Hawaiian names with discoveries made from Hawaii telescopes… and that spun off a lot of really, really interesting things.”
One of those things is the presentation that Simons and Larry Kimura will give Thursday night called The Physics of Pō.
“This is the first public presentation,” Simons said. “It is a joint perspective on Larry Kimura’s unpublished prelude to the Kumulipo, the very famous Hawaiian creation chant, that I was amazed by when Larry first shared it
with me. It has so many interesting and deep connections to modern astrophysics when I read it.”
“Larry and I immediately connected over it, and in particular the concept of Pō, which appears over a hundred times in the first 500 lines or so of the Kumulipo,” Simons said. “It is interesting and how it can map into what we call vacuum energy, or dark energy, and ultimately lead to phenomena like the Big Bang.”
“I feel very honored to be able to share [Kimura’s] interpretation of that wonderful, ancient chant through the lens of a scientist who is eager to see… how the native and ancient Hawaiians saw the universe, in the hope
that I can learn something from that process, that my so-called modern mind is incapable of,” Simons said. “That’s ultimately what I’m trying to do. And that’s the beauty of this sort of marriage between Hawaiian culture and and science. It gives you a completely new perspective, and one that really enriches you in the process.”
The Physics of Pō and The Pō of Physics talk will take place on Thursday, July 25, 2019 from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the ʻImiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo.