Initial Conditions Episode 12: Hawai'i and the Thirty Meter Telescope

Initial Conditions Episode 12: Hawai'i and the Thirty Meter Telescope

The images, texts, and details that did not make it into this week’s episode of Initial Conditions: A Physics History Podcast

Find the corresponding podcast episode here: Initial Conditions - A Physics History Podcast

This week’s episode, “Hawai’i and the Thirty Meter Telescope," is about the history of Hawai’i and how that sets the stage for the controversy surrounding the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). In this episode, we interview Kalewa Correa, a historian of Hawai’i, and Samantha Thompson, a historian of science and astronomy. Together, they are working on an oral history project for the National Air and Space Museum to collect the stories of Native Hawaiian and their perspectives on Maunakea, the proposed site for the TMT. You can find this episode on our website.

Over two decades after the US National Academy of Science recommended the construction of an Extremely Large Telescope (TMT's subgenre of ground-based telescopes), the TMT still has not been built. Protectors of Maunakea halted construction both in physical demonstrations and through the US court system. Maunakea is a sacred mountain for many Native Hawaiians and home to endangered species. The TMT is an exciting prospect for astronomy; a telescope of that size could reveal so much about the universe that existing telescopes would never be able to detect. But should finding answers in the stars take priority over learning and respecting people and the Earth?

The topic of the Thirty Meter Telescope is a complicated one that is rooted in the history of Hawai’i, colonization, and astronomy. For this reason, I decided to make this blog post about the resources that informed the episode. Below, you will find a list of some of the resources that I found most helpful in understanding and contextualizing the discussions surrounding the Thirty Meter Telescope. This is not an exhaustive list of resources and I prioritized perspectives I do not normally see represented in most media coverage. 


Fox, Keolu and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. “Fight Against Colonial Science.” The Nation (July 24, 2019).

The two authors of this article are “a Kānaka ʻŌiwi geneticist and [a] black Caribbean and American astrophysicist,” who explain colonization’s role in the TMT proposal and subsequent discussions. I’ve included this article because it is short and direct, so this could be a good place to start researching this topic.

Kahanamoku, Sara, Rosie'Anolani Alegado, Aurora Kagawa-Viviani, Katie Leimomi Kamelamela, Brittany Kamai, Lucianne M. Walkowicz, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Mithi Alexa de los Reyes, and Hilding Neilson. "A Native Hawaiian-led summary of the current impact of constructing the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea." arXiv preprint arXiv:2001.00970 (2020).

This proposal was written by a group of Native Hawaiian scientists and astronomers to center Native Hawaiian voices in the discussion about Maunakea and the future of astronomy. They summarize the state of the telescope and relationship between Native Hawaiians and astronomers. They cover the physical demonstrations and the response by law enforcement. Most importantly, they provide both short-term and long-term recommendations to implement for future astronomy projects.

McAvoy, Audrey. “US Environmental Study Launched For Thirty Meter Telescope.Honolulu Civil Beat (July 19, 2022).

This covers the recent news that the National Science Foundation is conducting an Environmental impact study for the Thirty Meter Telescope. NSF hosted four meetings in Hawai’i in August and recently closed its public comment period. 

Prescod-Weinstein, Chanda, Lucianne M. Walkowicz, Sarah Tuttle, Brian Nord, and Hilding R. Neilson. "Reframing astronomical research through an anticolonial lens--for TMT and beyond." arXiv preprint arXiv:2001.00674 (2020).

This paper covers colonialism and white supremacy and its relationship to astronomy. European scientific expeditions in the 18th and 19th centuries were facilitated by colonization and caused harm to Indigenous peoples. The authors propose a path forward in astronomy and apply the anticolonial lens to the Thirty Meter Telescope. The citations embedded in the article are also recommended readings to gain further insight on the authors' understanding and approach. 

Season 2: The Sacred Mountain. Offshore Podcast. Podcast audio. 2017.

If I could only recommend one resource, it would be this podcast. The discussion of the Thirty Meter Telescope is part of a much larger discussion on science and colonization, but it is also very specific to Hawai’i and the people who have lived on the archipelago for generations. The host interviews astronomers working on the mountain, Native Hawaiians, and even Native Hawaiians who work on the mountain. From this range of perspectives, she is able to find nuance in her reporting. I believe this podcast gives this conversation the time needed to hear multiple perspectives and approach them each with respect. 

Swanner, Leandra Altha. Mountains of Controversy: Narrative and the Making of Contested Landscapes in Postwar American Astronomy. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University (2013).

Though this is a longer read than other recommended articles, it is a great resource to learn not only about Hawaiian astronomy, but also of other Native American communities' relationships to the observatories built upon their land. Swanner’s coverage of Maunakea is unique in that it spends a lot of time discussing the work astronomers put into building ties and understanding with the Native Hawaiian people. Additionally, it was written before the demonstrations on Maunakea against the Thirty Meter Telescope brought international attention to the issue. If time does not permit you to read the entire dissertation, I recommend reading the introduction and the chapter on Maunakea. 

Whitt, Laurelyn. Science, colonialism, and indigenous peoples: the cultural politics of law and knowledge. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

This book is very dense and packed with information. Broadly, it shares a history of Western Science and its impact on Indigenous peoples. Before reading this book, I had not considered that science could be a form of colonization that continues today. Whitt defines biocolonialism as “a mode of neocolonialism in which the relationship of dominance and oppression is predicated upon the exploitation of indigenous human bodies and living organisms for profitable biological material.” Whitt argues that projects such as the Human Genome Project, often viewed as impressive international feats of science, are harmful in their bio-colonialist capacity. This is an example from the book that questioned my existing understanding of who “science” is for. 

Witze, Alexandra. “Hawaiian-Language Experts Make Their Mark on the Solar System.Nature 565, no. 7739 (January 11, 2019): 278–79. 

This article covers the A Hua He Inoa effort to reconcile Indigenous Hawaiian culture with the astronomical discoveries made on the island. Because names are so important for identity and meaning, this is a way astronomers can connect with the long legacy of astronomy practiced by Indigenous Hawaiians. 

Additional Resources

‘Imiloa - ‘Imiloa is a project from the University of Hawai’i–Hilo, aimed at connecting Hawaiian culture and legacy of Hawaiian astronomy with modern astronomy. Through exhibits and outreach programs, ‘Imiloa works to build understanding and respect between astronomers and Native Hawaiians. 

National Science Foundation Environmental Compliance: Thirty Meter Telescope - Read about the National Science Foundation’s process to evaluate the Thirty Meter Telescope and the environmental impact. 

Protect Mauna Kea - MKEA is an organization that supports protectors of Maunakea both on the ground for demonstrations, in court, and in public policy. They have various educational resources and ways individuals can be involved. 

Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center - Learn more about Hawaiian culture and history through the virtual exhibits hosted by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Currently, their website is down, but I’ve listed it here anyway for future reference. 

Society of Indigenous Physicists - The Society of Indigenous Physicists provide support, community, and programming for Indigenous Physicists. 

Thirty Meter Telescope Timeline - This is a timeline compiled by the organization behind the Thirty Meter Telescope and can be a helpful resource to visualize the process of building the telescope.

You can listen to Initial Conditions: A Physics History Podcast wherever you get your podcasts. A new episode will be released every Thursday so be sure to subscribe! On our website, you will find transcripts, show notes, and our suggested resources to learn more about each topic we discuss. 


About the Author

Maura Shapiro

Mars Rover

Maura Shapiro

Maura Shapiro was a Podcast and Outreach Coordinator for the Niels Bohr Library & Archives'  Initial Conditions: a Physics History Podcast (to be released Summer 2022) and has since moved on to other roles within AIP. She interned with the Niels Bohr Library & Archives and Center for History of Physics in the summer of 2021. She earned degrees in both Physics and Communication & Rhetoric from the University of Pittsburgh and loves hiking, biking, and almost anything outdoors! 

Caption: An artist's concept of NASA Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, one half of the twin rover mission, on the surface of Mars. Opportunity diligently worked for almost fifteen years, surpassing its 90 sol (martian day) lifespan by 5,262 sols or almost 6,000 percent.

See all articles by Maura Shapiro

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