Science and religion and the controversy over the TMT telescope on Mauna Kea
An interview with Doug Simons, Director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.
How does Hawaii’s TMT controversy affect the larger debate about science and religion?
The Thirty-Meter Telescope controversy continues its path through the courts and state agencies. Its completion hit a major road block — literally — in 2015, when construction was slated to begin and a number of protesters blocked trucks from going through. Since then, the protesters have won some major court victories and the future of TMT on Mauna Kea is in doubt.
Doug Simons knows a thing or two about this debate since he’s been director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea since 2012, and was Director at the Gemini Observatory for five years before that. He’s a veteran of debates about telescope construction and Hawaii’s cultural and historic concerns about astronomy on the Mauna.
I met Doug at a talk he gave at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo last January. This center is a local treasure designed to provide information about astronomy and Hawaiian culture to the public. Once a month there’s a star show and talk from the Mauna Kea Observatories in the planetarium. Doug’s talk was excellent for its comprehensiveness and sensitivity to all sides of the debate. Doug has clearly been doing this for a long time.
He’s a practicing Catholic, as we discuss below, so he’s somewhat unusual as a scientist who holds and openly discusses his religious beliefs. But perhaps that gives him the perspective to be able to gracefully bridge the gaps between the various parties in the current controversies over TMT and the broader debates about science, religion, culture and astronomy.
I interviewed Doug via email.
What really excites you about astronomy and cosmology?
I’m particularly fascinated with the melding of high energy physics and astronomy/cosmology in recent years. When I was in college these were taught as distinct fields involving the study of the smallest objects in the universe (subatomic particles) via Quantum Mechanics and the largest structures in the universe via the theory of General Relativity. Today, due to exquisitely sensitive studies of the Cosmic Microwave Background with satellites and ground-based observations, large scale galaxy surveys, and modern particle accelerates like the Large Hadron Collider which can replicate conditions immediately after the Big Bang, these fields are coming into alignment. Linking these two pillars (QM and GR) of modern physical sciences through a much deeper understanding of gravity is one of the great challenges and opportunities of 21st century science.
What made you decide to make astronomy your career? And why did you decide to give up day to day science in favor of administration?
Figure 1. A recent image of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea (photo credit, Sean Goebel).
I was hooked on astronomy as a kid when, in seventh grade, I saw Saturn for the first time with a small telescope I was given as a Christmas present. From there I grew frustrated because, other than Saturn and other planets, objects viewed through that small refractor didn’t look like pictures in astronomy books, so at age 16 I built my own backyard observatory, grinding/polishing an eight inch primary mirror by hand. I used that for a couple of years to do astrophotography, then built a spectrograph for my telescope and did a research project, looking for correlations between lunar surface topography and spectra as an indication of variations in lunar surface composition. I entered that into a national science fair and won second place, earning an invitation to Caltech to pursue my BSc in astronomy.
I gave up independent research around 2000 in large part because I felt my contributions to astronomy could be most impactful to the field in general through taking on leadership roles in instrument development and eventually, by leading observatories. There are many astronomers who are doing great research on low mass stars and brown dwarfs (my research specialties), but relatively few who have the right skill set to develop new instrumentation. My fascination with tech-development and astronomy instrumentation no doubt stems all the way back to high school, when I built my backyard observatory.
What does the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope specialize in and what are its main contributions to astronomy so far?
Currently CFHT specializes in wide field or panoramic imaging using optical and infrared cameras. These cameras are used to generate enormous catalogs of objects that can be “mined” for a variety of research applications. They are also often the source of interesting objects that require larger telescopes, which have higher resolution or greater sensitivity, to observe in detail.
One of CFHT’s greatest achievements in astronomy so far was its contribution to the discovery of dark energy — the mysterious energy that is thought to be behind the accelerating expansion of the universe. CFHT was used to find a large number of supernovae that were observed by one of the teams that discovered the accelerating expansion of the universe in 1998. That discovery of dark energy led to the Nobel Prize in physics in 2011.
In the next one to two years we anticipate deploying one of the most sophisticated instruments ever built for CFHT to enable the largest search for exoplanets ever attempted from Mauna Kea. This instrument (SPIRou) is designed to detect terrestrial class planets in the habitable zones of nearby stars and will be an important part of humanity’s quest to answer one of the most basic questions before us — are we alone in the universe?
With so many telescopes on Mauna Kea, including yours, why is Mauna Kea such a great place for astronomy?
Many factors contribute to Mauna Kea being such a spectacular site for astronomy. One of the most important is the nature of the air flow across the summit of Mauna Kea. Hawaiʻi Island is surrounded for thousands of miles by a flat surface — the Pacific ocean. Air caught in that flow has little turbulence, and turbulence is the bane of observing astronomical objects from the ground. Turbulence leads to images being blurred. An extreme example is the appearance of objects behind the exhaust plume of a jet plane on an airport tarmac — looking through that turbulent air makes objects behind the plume appear distorted and blurred. As a shield volcano, Mauna Kea has a very gentle slope as it rises to almost 14,000 feet. That gentle slope in turn means air passing up and over Mauna Kea doesn’t have much turbulence generated as it smoothly passes over the summit. Mauna Kea is unique worldwide in this sense. Other important factors include the dark skies over Hawaiʻi Island (among the darkest measured worldwide), the high fraction of the time it’s cloud free above Mauna Kea, and the low water vapor content at 14,000 ft (which leads to improved transparency at infrared and sub-millimeter wavelengths of light).
The telescopes on Mauna Kea have specialized over the years and therefore offer complementary capabilities and collaborate frequently. As a result it is common for objects to be observed at several telescopes on Mauna Kea, each providing a unique research capability and collectively yielding a much more comprehensive understanding of astronomical objects than would be possible with just one or two telescopes.
What is the root of the controversy over the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) proposed for Mauna Kea, but mired now in legal battles?
If there was a single root, I suspect a resolution to the conflict would have been easier to find. I believe the dispute over TMT represents the confluence of many factors, concerns, and interests. While TMT found itself in a crossfire focused on the summit of Mauna Kea, a similar conflict could have just as easily emerged elsewhere in the State. That’s because Mauna Kea isn’t the only site regarded as sacred by many, and TMT will not be the only proposed development on or near one of those sites.
Regardless of what happens to TMT, the important thing here is to learn from this conflict, recognizing that it could rematerialize at some other time or place unless a deeper understanding of the underlying issues is achieved. To be clear, that deeper understanding of — and respect for — each other’s points of view is vital for us to move forward together. In the case of Mauna Kea where there are multiple important interests — including environmental, cultural, religion, science, recreation, etc. — I’m certain there’s a lot to be learned all around that would broaden the ‘depth of focus’ on the issues surrounding the future of the mountain, opening more possibilities for resolution.
How do you feel about Governor Ige’s proposed solution for TMT, the 10 Point Plan, which focuses on taking down a number of existing telescopes in return for allowing construction of TMT?
When released in May 2015, the Governor was under considerable pressure to arbitrate a solution, given the arrests that occurred on the mountain the previous month and the enormous tension that existed in the community in the wake of those arrests. He was also fairly new to the complex issues surrounding Mauna Kea. Since then, a lot has happened in this dynamic situation.
For example, Hawaiʻi Island now has a new mayor who has been outspoken about finding a resolution to the conflict, with a bold vision of Mauna Kea being a symbol of international peace for humanity. Also, a vocal Native Hawaiian group called PUEO has emerged that supports TMT in the broader context of supporting education opportunities. Additionally, CDUP and sublease issues emerged, prompting TMT to explore a site on La Palma in the Canary Islands as an alternative to Mauna Kea.
Since the announcement of his 10 Point Plan, Governor Ige has made numerous trips to Hawaiʻi Island, where he has heard from a range of citizens about the TMT issue. Given all of these changes since the 10 Point Plan was announced 2 years ago — and the evolving complexity of the situation in general — revisiting that plan to reflect changes in the conflict over the past two years seems warranted.
Should TMT be built, in your opinion?
Yes, I support TMT. It is a critical next step toward ensuring a bright future for Hawai‘i astronomy. Unfortunately, it is growing increasingly difficult to see how permitting and sublease issues will get resolved in time to meet the construction decision deadlines TMT has defined.
If built, TMT brings with it a range of benefits to the Hawai‘i Island community — not to mention the entire state — by advancing a field of science that Hawai‘i leads thanks to Mauna Kea and the observatories that have been conducting research there for the past five decades. If TMT isn’t built in Hawai‘i, this will markedly deepen the lack of confidence international funding agencies have in the future of Hawai‘i astronomy.
Most of the funding for the Mauna Kea Observatories comes from international federal funding agencies that sponsor basic scientific research. If Hawai‘i astronomy is going forward in a setting without TMT, it is crucial that the State declare its intentions to support astronomy in the 21st century. That declaration of support can come in various forms, including, and in particular, through renewal of the Mauna Kea Science Reserve Master Lease that is set to expire in 2033. Failure to do so means an end to most of Hawaiʻi astronomy, and all the great things Hawaiʻi astronomy brings to the people of Hawaiʻi , probably throughout the 21st century. That includes good paying high-tech jobs in a field of pure scientific research that supports ~1000 families, a multitude of educational programs that benefit the community, $95M of annual economic impact to Hawaiʻi Island, and international prestige that comes with being a world leader in the field of astronomy.
How do you view the tension between science and religion, economic development and cultural sensitivity, affecting the TMT debate?
The tension between science and religion is, at its core, an artificial human construct. These two pillars of the human experience certainly can stand side by side, and threats to their coexistence mostly stem from a poor understanding and/or interest in one or the other, or both.
Science, culture, religion, philosophy, etc. are foundational layers of our global civilization that we humans created for millennia as expressions of — and explorations in — our selves. Unfortunately, the canonical and naïve view that science and religion are fundamentally at odds with each other has fueled the Mauna Kea conflict.
Many opposing TMT have stated that they aren’t opposed to astronomy or science, but want to see an end to new development on Mauna Kea and respect for their deeply-held beliefs and manaʻo about Mauna Kea in the future. Many supporting TMT have stated their deeply-held beliefs that the opportunities and resources TMT (and Hawaiʻi astronomy in general) brings to Hawai‘i Island are vitally important, not just for this generation but for many generations to come.
The challenge is getting each ‘side’ to see into the hearts and minds of the other to appreciate the wisdom of both perspectives. Entwined in all of this are historical injustices that cannot be undone but can be learned from so they are never repeated. Finding a lasting resolution given these very different perspectives isn’t hopeless, as some suggest, if those involved in the conflict genuinely strive to seek a lasting resolution — even if we don’t know what it looks like now.
There is a profound distinction between perpetuating peace and perpetuating conflict and sometimes, amongst all the harsh words and strong emotions in a conflict, it’s hard to tell who is perpetuating what. I am reminded of a humbling quote by Richard Feynman — ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.’ These words cross my mind from time to time as a reminder that no matter how confident I am in my beliefs and belief systems, I could easily be wrong.
Before anyone marches ahead proclaiming their approach is superior and others aren’t worth listening to, perhaps Feynman’s sage words are worth considering. I am certain that I do not have all the answers and with equal confidence I can say I haven’t met anyone that does have all the answers. It is worth bearing all of this in mind when extreme and/or simplistic positions are taken on matters as complex as Mauna Kea.
What is your preferred outcome from the new listening session process known as EnVision Maunakea?
The EnVision Maunakea ‘Aha Kūkā or listening sessions have already begun. Listening to the incredible and very personal stories of community members participating in EnVision Maunakea helped open my eyes to the diversity and richness of perspectives about Mauna Kea. Repeating those conversations island-wide among a broad cross-section of the community in a climate of respect and openness to new ideas will, I believe, critically inform any future and lasting resolution to the conflict.
Those who participate in EnVision Maunakea listening sessions with an open mind and heart seeking an end to the conflict will gain the most from these conversations. It is my hope that the EnVision Maunakea listening sessions will trigger a cascade of other conversations and help develop a community vision and consciousness about the centerpiece of our island, rendering conflicts like we have seen recently a thing of the past.
What should we expect to be able to study with TMT? And why can’t it achieve these same outcomes even if it’s built at a different location?
TMT’s main strengths compared to other observatories are its light gathering power and high spatial resolution. Combined, that leads to much higher sensitivity than even the largest existing telescopes.
The James Webb Space Telescope will launch next year at a cost of about $9 billion, and will have a nominal five-year lifetime. It will have much higher sensitivity than any ground-based (or space-based) observatory at near-infrared wavelengths, but TMT would have much higher resolution and sensitivity at optical wavelengths. In that sense, these vanguard observatories complement each other.
Some of the early science applications with TMT will include studying exoplanet atmospheres in the search for life. The Trappist-1 system recently announced by NASA is an excellent example of potential TMT science. With several planets orbiting that star in its habitable zone, a high priority now is to observe those planets as they transit their host star, looking for signs of oxygen or ozone — arguably the most compelling biomarkers we know of in planetary atmospheres. This observation requires exquisite sensitivity — something you need a telescope like TMT to achieve.
On the other end of the distance scale, TMT should be able to detect the first stars that formed after the Big Bang, filling in an important gap in our discovery space backward in time. These stars, which we think were much more massive than today’s generation of stars due to the lack of metals back then (metals in astronomy means any element other than hydrogen and helium), should have been incredibly energetic and short lived. They were the progenitors that processed the hydrogen/helium created during the Big Bang and seeded the universe with the first generation of elements ultimately needed for life.
This is all theoretical — TMT could make all of this real through direct observation. Perhaps the most interesting science application for TMT is to allow us to ask questions that today we don’t even know how to ask. That is the history of astronomy — it wasn’t long ago when we didn’t even know to ask about dark matter and dark energy. Those concepts/terms didn’t exist in the lexicons of astronomers (or our species) when I was a graduate student. The current generation of observatories led to the discovery of these forms of matter/energy, which together comprise 95% of everything in the universe. What lies beyond our current horizon of understanding? That question is one TMT stands a good chance of answering, or at least asking.
The differences between La Palma and Mauna Kea as astronomical sites are significant. La Palma’s primary advantage over Chilean sites is its latitude — like Hawaiʻi the northern sky is visible from La Palma and moving TMT to La Palma when GMT and E-ELT are in Chile makes sense. That gives TMT unique sky coverage among the 3 large telescope projects underway now. The flip side is the seeing is certainly worse at La Palma compared to Mauna Kea. It’s at a lower altitude so has more water vapor in the atmosphere and is therefore a significantly inferior infrared viewing site. For perspective, the TMT site on La Palma is below the 9000’ elevation of Hale Pohaku (the mid-level facility on Mauna Kea) and is only slightly higher than the crest of Daniel K. Inouye Highway spanning Hawaiʻi Island.
Not widely known is the impact of Sahara desert dust on telescopes on La Palma. This intermittently leads to significant amounts of dust suspended in the air from the desert, decreasing the transparency and increasing the infrared brightness of the atmosphere above La Palma. TMT wants to come to Hawaiʻi for good reasons and while its core/near-term science mission could be effectively pursued on La Palma, this ~$1.5B facility will not reach its science potential on La Palma.
Case in point, the chart below shows science impact for optical, infrared, and radio telescopes worldwide. The metric “science impact” is the number of peer-reviewed papers multiplied by their citations at each observatory, so this product is a measure of research quantity and quality. By this metric, not only are four of the top five telescopes worldwide on Mauna Kea, but not a single La Palma telescope makes it on this chart. This large difference in scientific accomplishments between the Mauna Kea and La Palma observatories is due to a number of reasons, site quality among them.
Figure 2. Science impact by telescopes around the world (source: D. Crabtree 2015).
How important are the economic incentives to the community that TMT is offering?
TMT would, on its own, double the investment in the Mauna Kea Observatories from the standpoint of capital investments. It would help sustain the 1000+ jobs in Hawaiʻi astronomy today, by demonstrating to the world that Hawaiʻi astronomy has a strong future in the 21st century. It is important to realize that most operations funding for Hawaiʻi astronomy comes from international federal funding agencies that sponsor pure research. TMT is also a highly international observatory, hence building it sends an important message back to science foundations, agencies, and ministries around the world that funding Hawaiʻi astronomy is in their strategic interests.
The inverse of that is also true — if TMT is not built in Hawaiʻi, the existing Mauna Kea observatories and the State of Hawaiʻi need to reassure those same funding agencies that their future investments in Hawaiʻi make strategic sense versus, for example, funding particle accelerators in Japan, fusion experiments in Europe, bio-engineering research in the U.S., etc.
Figure 3. The first cohort of Maunakea Scholars in 2016 from Kapolei High School are shown on the CFHT catwalk, with Gemini Observatory in the background.
There are numerous near-term economic benefits to building TMT in Hawaiʻi. These include the millions of dollars provided to local contractors who would build much of the facility on Mauna Kea. In addition, the TMT operations staff in Hawaiʻi would be among the largest of any of the existing observatories, adding to the $95 million per year in economic impact to the Big Island economy that the existing Mauna Kea observatories already provide.
TMT also provides important investments in STEM education through the THINK Fund, which provides funding for college scholarships, training teachers and students in “science, technology, engineering, and math” fields, classroom equipment, field trips, etc. It is important to also recognize the tremendous work already underway by the existing Mauna Kea observatories in education and outreach. Some examples include –
· Journey Through the Universe, which has reached nearly 100,000 students in Hawaiʻi Island over its 13 year history with classroom astronomy educators
· Imiloa’s MANU program, which provides fantastic education in schools bridging sea wayfaring, Hawaiian culture, and astronomy
· Kama‘āina Observatory Experience, which provides free monthly public tours of telescopes and environmental and cultural education about Mauna Kea
These and many other programs demonstrate the importance the Mauna Kea Observatories place on giving back to our community, and empowering future generations by supporting and creating unique educational opportunities, particularly for students — tomorrow’s stewards of Mauna Kea.
You’ve shared in your talks that you are a practicing Catholic. How do your religious views affect your practice of science? How do you resolve potential contradictions between your faith and your role as a scientist?
I use my upbringing as a Catholic to bridge between science and religion. I could have almost any faith and the point would be the same — these two dimensions of the human experience are not at odds with each other, despite popular (mis)perceptions. I use this example, grounded in my personal experiences, as a proof of concept that religion and science on the summit of Mauna Kea can coexist, if there is common understanding and appreciation for each dimension.
We are all vessels of beliefs, grounding our perceptions in human belief systems, among them science and religion. Understanding science, philosophy, religion, culture, etc., as human constructs, distinct from Nature’s constructs, is the great “normalizer” that puts all sides of the Mauna Kea conflict on the same level, from which a common path forward can be found.
With that in mind, apparent contradictions are resolved by digging deeper from both directions — from science and religion. Why do we study the universe? Why do we pray? I concluded long ago that the answers to both questions are the same. The further backward in time we study the universe, the more we pray, the deeper into our selves we explore.
When I looked scientifically beyond the Big Bang in my recent presentation at ‘Imiloa I naturally touched on interests that span science, philosophy, culture, and religion. It has always been that way — today we dig deeper than ever to find that point of connection from which it is clear that science and religion have a common “interest”. They connect at a place called self.