Technology, Tradition, and a Telescope Cause a Clash in Hawaii

The proposed Thirty Meter Telescope causes conflict with native traditions in Hawaii.

Technology, Tradition, and a Telescope Cause a Clash in Hawaii
Mauna Kea Night Sky JTSorrell/iStock

Technology is rapidly evolving with new scientific insights and headlines splashed across our screens daily, touting discoveries from the nano-level of quantum physics to the inconceivably vast mysteries of the cosmos. As is often the case, advances in technology can cause friction with the cultural sensitivities of the human world.

Today’s protests in Hawaii over the construction of a new, cutting-edge telescope in an area that is considered sacred by Native Hawaiians highlights the tension that exists between human traditions and technological innovations. 

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Technology impacts tradition

The massively powerful telescope, dubbed the Thirty Meter Telescope, is being built by a partnership of universities from California and Canada along with support from institutions in India, China, and Japan.

The construction site at the summit of the Big Island's tallest mountain has been causing controversy for years. The peak of Mauna Kea was selected after an exhaustive five-year worldwide search for the optimum telescope placement.

Native Hawaiians object to the construction of the enormous telescope on the basis that the building site is on land that is considered sacred in their culture. The protests began during the groundbreaking ceremony in 2014.

Demonstrations and protests at the site escalated until construction was eventually halted in 2015. 

 Keck and NASA Telescopes. Mauna Kea Summit, Big Island, Hawaii, United States
The Keck and NASA telescopes on Mauna Kea Summit. Source: Robert Linsdell/Wikimedia Commons

Searching the sky for answers

Proponents of the $1.4 billion project believe that the scientific discoveries made possible by what will be the largest visible-light telescope in the world, with a primary mirror measuring 98 feet (30 meters), will bring new economic and educational research opportunities to the area, while also providing new insights about the Big Bang and the origins of the universe.

However, Native Hawaians are vocal about the importance of preserving their ancestral lands and traditions and not sacrificing their culture at the expense of technological advancement. Traditionally, only Hawaiian chiefs and priests were allowed to ascend to the summit of Mauna Kea because it was considered a holy place, according to the University of Hawaii. 

As Hawaiian elders tied themselves together with rope and hundreds of protesters lay chanting and singing in the middle of the access road to the Mauna Kea summit, it is clear that the friction between technology and tradition isn’t going to be resolved any time soon. 

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