They’re trying to build a telescope

If a telescope like the TMT and a big physics experiment like the INO are being stalled for failing to account for the interests and sensibilities of the people already living at or near their planned sites, what should scientists do when they set out to plan for the next big observatory or similar installation at a new site? A new paper published by Nature on August 18, by a bunch of researchers from China, describes in great detail their efforts to qualify a new “astronomical observing site”. “On Earth’s surface,” their paper begins, “there are only a handful of high-quality astronomical sites that meet the requirements for very large next-generation facilities. In the context of scientific opportunities in time-domain astronomy, a good site on the Tibetan Plateau will bridge the longitudinal gap between the known best sites (all in the Western Hemisphere). The Tibetan Plateau is the highest plateau on Earth, with an average elevation of over 4,000 metres, and thus potentially provides very good opportunities for astronomy and particle astrophysics.” In the paper, the researchers explain their estimates of the available observing time; seeing with a differential image motion monitor; and air stability and turbulence and water vapour over the site – near a town named Lenghu in the Qinghai province (central China).

Such exhaustive detail may be common when it comes to qualifying one astronomical observing spot over another, but information about the mountain, the town, the people who live there, how they use the land, the cultural significance of their natural surroundings and – given that Qinghao is on the Tibetan plateau – if the installation of a telescope, if and when that happens, will be perceived as yet another form of colonialism by the Chinese state are all conspicuous by absence. I’m sure most readers of this blog are familiar with the TMT – short for Thirty-Meter Telescope – story: residents of Mauna Kea, where the observatory is to be built, protested and stopped its construction in 2014. Work resumed only in 2019 after a series of interventions, one outcome of which was that the international astronomy community had to reckon with its colonial history and present. Let me quote at length from an article Nithyanand Rao wrote for The Wire Science in 2020, about the “shared history” of astronomy and colonialism:

[Leandra] Swanner finds that for native Hawaiians, “science has effectively become an agent of colonisation”, “fundamentally indistinguishable from earlier colonisation activities”. This puts astronomers in a difficult position. They see the economic benefits astronomy brings to Hawai’i – over a thousand jobs, business for local firms and services and, once the TMT comes online, a promise to pay $1 million in annual lease rent — and their own work as a noble pursuit of knowledge. However, they encounter opposition that has charged them with environmental and cultural destruction.

“Unfortunately for the astronomers involved in the TMT debate,” writes Swanner, “whether they identify as indigenous allies or neocolonialists ultimately matters less than whether they are perceived as practicing neocolonialist science” (emphasis in the original).

Astronomers have attempted a counter-narrative, linking the contemporary practice of astronomy to ancient Polynesian explorers and astronomers who navigated using the stars. A concrete outcome and centrepiece of this effort was a science education centre and planetarium that “links to early Polynesian navigation history and knowledge of the night skies, and today’s renaissance of Hawaiian culture and wayfinding with parallel growth of astronomy and scientific developments on Hawaii island.”

Swanner notes the unequal relationship – the centre “merely grafts Native Hawaiian culture onto the dominant culture of Western science … Astronomers do not look to traditional knowledge to carry out their observing runs, after all, but the observatories studding the summit physically deny access to sites of sacred importance.”

The story of the India-based Neutrino Observatory is equally cynical, and equally problematic in a different way. When I commissioned Rao, and Virat Markandeya, to investigate the INO’s ‘situation’ in 2016, some four years after the Indian government had permitted its constriction, for The Wire, I assumed that it was being held back by bureaucratic inefficiency, as is so common in India, and a mulch of pseudoscience and regional politics in Tamil Nadu. But when they were pursuing the story, I learnt of a small but interesting detail: since 2010, India has required any agency that prepares an environmental impact assessment report (for a project that might damage the environment) to be accredited by the Quality Council of India. The INO collaboration’s report had been prepared by an unaccredited body, and this presented a stumbling block. Members of the collaboration – physicists – thought this was okay, just a minor detail, but to the people protesting the project, it was one thorn among many that they’d come to identify with numerous projects that governments have approved in India and which have overlooked the rights of the people living near those projects. And in the INO’s case, the principal offenders have been the Department of Atomic Energy and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, helped along of late by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. It struck me that people overlooking the little things was, for many of those at the receiving end of the new India’s ‘acche din’, a perfectly legitimate reason to suspect something was up. I’m bummed that the INO isn’t being built (and in fact could be cancelled, if the state’s new chief minister M.K. Stalin has his way – although I was confused when he expressed his opposition to the INO but his government had, a month or so ago, allowed the embattled Sterlite copper-smelting unit in Thoothukudi to reopen) but I wouldn’t have the project’s still being stalled any other way.

The problem is what counts as due process, and who gets to decide. As Swanner has noted, a bunch of astronomers “grafting” one idea onto another was for them the right way to go – but it’s of little use to the people in Hawai’i who are afraid of losing access to what is to them a culturally and spiritually significant location, in exchange for something originally conceived to benefit other people. (It was also quite ironic when astronomers were pissed after SpaceX’s Starlink constellation satellites began to obstruct astronomical observations of the night sky, and began to complain that the sky is a global commons, etc. It’s perhaps a greater irony that India – which contributes to 10% of the TMT collaboration – wants the telescope to be shifted away from Mauna Kea, to a different site, because of the threat of future protests – the same India that has almost amended all the country’s environmental laws to include a ‘pay and pollute’ clause.) The INO outreach team has insisted that it conducted regular and effective outreach among the people of Theni, the district in which the INO’s site is located, but they may have overlooked the wider environment of cynicism and bureaucratic dishonesty in which their efforts, and the public perception of those efforts, was couched.

Environmental activist and writer (and my former teacher) Nityanand Jayaraman told me sometime between 2016 and 2020 that at no time did the governments of India and Tamil Nadu nor the INO collaboration give themselves or the people of Theni opposed to the project the option of moving the experiment to a different location. When the latter group did demand that the project be moved away, members of the INO collaboration and other scientists that Rao and Markandeya spoke to countered that the protestors’ reasons were pseudoscientific (most of them were pseudoscientific) – but this was hardly the point. The protestors had no need to be scientific any more than they had to be guaranteed their rights and other entitlements. (It nags me that ‘solving’ the latter is a much larger problem than the proponents of one project could accommodate, but I don’t know what else I’d advocate.)

And now, astronomers in China have published a paper expressing their excitement about having spotted a new location at which to mount a telescope, themselves overlooking considerations of whether the people who are already there might be okay with it. As a result they may have effectively shut one option out. This is an important factor because, as Rao has written (see excerpt below), many people seem to think that Hawaiians’ resistance to the TMT and others of its kind on the islands is fairly recent; this is not true. They expressed their opposition how they could; the rest of us didn’t pay attention. From Rao’s article:

For a historically informed understanding of the conflict, we have to go back much further, to Hawaii’s annexation by the US in 1898, following which land was ceded to the US government.

In 1959, these lands – including Mauna Kea – were in turn ceded by the US government to the State of Hawai’i, which held them “in trust” for native Hawaiians. The next year, a tsunami laid waste to the city of Hilo in Hawai’i, prompting its chamber of commerce to write to universities in the US and Japan suggesting that Mauna Kea might be useful for astronomical observatories. This event coincided with US astronomers’ interest in Hawai’i as well.

And so the conflict between native Hawaiians and the American astronomy community began in the 1960s, when the first of the 13 observatories was constructed on the mountain that the former consider to be “a place revered as a house of worship, an ancestor, and an elder sibling in the mo’okū’auhau (or genealogical succession) of all Hawaiians.”

At the time, writes [Iokepa] Casumbal-Salazar, “there was no public consultation, no clear management process and little governmental oversight.” Environmentalists soon began opposing further construction on the mountain, arguing that the existing telescopes had contaminated local aquifers and destroyed the habitat of a rare bug found only on the mountain’s summit. …

Contrary to the narrative that native Hawaiians did not oppose the first telescopes on Mauna Kea in the 1960s and 1970s, Casumbal-Salazar shows how they did indeed express their dissent “in the few public forums available, by writing newspaper editorials, publishing opinion pieces and speaking out at public events” while also fighting other battles, such as those to reclaim their rights to land, resources, cultural practices — even the right to teach their children in the Hawaiian language.

They were also fighting evictions and resettlements in the name of tourism development and decades of the US Navy’s use of an island as target practice for its bombs. At the same time, the state’s dependence on tourism and militarism resulted in income inequalities and emigration. …

Similarly, native communities and environmentalists opposed the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, concerned about the ecology and “spiritual integrity” of the mountain. At the time the new observatory was proposed, Kitt Peak was already host to two dozen telescopes.

Today, moving the TMT or any of the other observatories away will be no small feat: they draw hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and investments every year, not to mention setting them up took decades of work. To echo Jayaraman, not having any observatories here is no longer an option. And this is the same future the new Chinese Nature paper seems to augur: pick a spot, plan a telescope, and then ask the locals if they’re okay with it. If they’re not, tough luck. To borrow a few words from the abstract of Casumbal-Salazar’s thesis, it will become another push for a telescope “realised through law and rationalised by science”.

(I’m not sure if a lot of people got the headline – a play on the name of a song by System of a Down.)

Rupavardhini B.R. read a draft of this post before it was published.