A dispute in Hawaii set religious observers against scientific observers. After years of protests and legal battles, Hawaiian officials thought science had won. The state announced a “notice to proceed” to build a massive telescope atop a volcano that some native Hawaiians consider sacred. But in a surprise turn of events, the giant project may end up half the world away.
The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is the brainchild of an astronomical observation company. It is organized by a group of universities in California and Canada with financially support from Chinese, Indian, and Japanese partners.
Construction on the TMT was set to begin late summer at the summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island. Scientists say the weather, air, and light conditions at Mauna Kea make it one of the best places on Earth for astronomy. Several telescopes and observatories are already there—but none so large as the proposed TMT.
But even after the State Supreme Court decision allowed the telescope, opponents continued to object. They claim the telescope would desecrate sacred land at the state’s highest peak. Native Hawaiian religious observers climb the peak several times each year to honor their ancestors, whom they call “the elders.” They say the scientific observers will prevent their free expression of religion—and destroy some memorial structures built on the site. Government officials say that the worshipers will have access to the mountain, just as always. But that still isn’t satisfactory to the indigenous group.
In July and August, protesters blocked the road to the summit. They prevented construction crew traffic for three weeks. Some sat in chairs, refusing to move. Others chained themselves together, forming a human fence. One man lay across a metal grate in the roadway for 11 hours so automobiles couldn’t pass.
Frustrated by more delays after winning the legal decision, the group behind the $1.4 billion project resigned at least to look elsewhere. TMT’s Plan B is a site in Spain’s Canary Islands. A TMT representative says the group has applied for a permit to build there—in case it can’t move ahead in Hawaii.
Some call the conflict a case of “beliefs versus facts.” But that’s not exactly a fair representation.
Astronomers have their own set of beliefs honoring science—not ancestors or God. The scientists have placed their hope in the TMT. With the right location and the right piece of equipment, these astronomers believe they will be able to see 13 billion years into the past. That’s back to the time they trust the universe was formed after what they call the Big Bang. They believe the universe itself will reveal its genesis—or beginning. Sadly, these scientists rarely have much respect for our Creator’s own account of Genesis-to-Revelation. So they must press on with the project somewhere to advance their beliefs.
Spain is eager to accept the telescope, which will bring educational and economic opportunity with it. Canary Islands Astrophysics Institute Director Rafael Rebolo says, “We are here if the TMT project needs us.” The Canary Islands observatory site has already passed environmental impact studies and is ready for use.
“Our mountains are not sacred,” Rebolo adds.