Tag Archives: astronomy

The Telescope That Sees into the Heart of Hawaii

I asked Coleman, again, about the political nature of the TMT controversy. Was it not true that the United States instigated an illegal military coup and then later stole these islands near the turn of the nineteenth century? So weren’t these internecine politics sort of peripheral to the fact that Hawaii was a sovereign kingdom that was robbed from the Hawaiian people? And was that robbery not at gunpoint? And was it not true that the astronomers and groups supporting the TMT were just tacitly benefiting from a major geopolitical crime that was never rectified? Wasn’t the fundamental question of developing anything on Mauna Kea solely within the purview of the citizens of this hypothetical Hawaiian Kingdom? This was, to say the least, an uncomfortable question to ask, but it was important to know what one of maybe three Native Hawaiian astronomers on this planet thought about it.

He said, “There are very large numbers of Hawaiians who think statehood is a great thing. People who say, ‘We want to be Americans. We love it. We were born Americans, we served in Vietnam and Korea. We want to be seen as Americans.’ And then there are people who say, ‘No, we don’t want to be Americans. We hate the place.’” He speculated how these two groups could achieve consensus and the cold wind picked up and I grew impatient.

In Virginia Quarterly Review, Trevor Quirk reports from a mountain on the Big Island of Hawaii, where native Hawaiians protested the construction of a telescope on spiritual grounds — the presence of which cuts to the very question of who gets to decide what happens on Hawaiian soil — and who the soil belongs to.

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Practical Cartography: I Am Mapped, Therefore I Am

Cantino's map, one of the most important pieces of 16th century cartography. (Image in the public domain.)

Lois Parshley’s wide-ranging, fascinating story on mapping the unmapped — from black holes, to the bottom of the sea, to the populations of the Congo and Haiti — looks at not just the science of map-making, but the morality.

“I like maps,” Gayton says. “But really what I care about is equitable distribution of health care. As long as 1 billion people don’t have it, sooner or later it’ll come bite people in rich countries.” He scoffs at the idea that there are no blank spaces left on Earth. “Anyone who says the world is mapped, ask them to show you where the population of Congo are living. Ask them where the villages are. If they can do it, please let me know.”

To Gayton, it’s not an idle distinction. “When you have a place like South Sudan, where millions of people live and die without ever figuring in a database anywhere, their names will never be written down. There’s not a lot of dignity in that—to not be on the map is quite a powerful statement of uncaring.” That’s what Missing Maps is about. “We still don’t know who they are, but at least we know where their house is. At least the map actually contains them, rather than a blank wash of green,” Gayton says. “I tell people at mapathons sometimes, ‘That house you’re tracing right now, that hut—that’s the first time in the history of humanity someone cared enough about them to take note.’” Things don’t exist because we name them, but giving them a name engenders new meaning. At its most basic, to exist on a map is to have value.

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The Weirdness of Near-Future America

You, Little Sylvia, will come up knowing the truth, but to the rest of the world–to jellyfishes, crackers, finkies, and swells, to Bosom families and Consolidated alike–the stars are not real. The planets are not real. Astronomy, if spoken of al all, is regarded as a delusional cult scarcely more respectable than the Jesus Lovers. The Chiefs long back did the decent thing and decided to put both gangs out of business. The Jesus Lovers dug in; you will see their lowercase t scratched on fenceposts with a ten-dollar nail. But the Astronomers went off quietly without leaving a trace or sign.

They were easily dispatched because their ideas so nearly resembled fiction. You will learn better, Little Sylvia, but to the rest of the world Astronomy is nonsense, magic on par with weather-knowing and poetry cures.

The surest way to hobble any truth is to put it in a story-book. Smart Man Tolemy wrote The Lonesome Wanderer for children so that we would come up knowing Astronomy as a fairy tale. His Astronomers were pale, hairless mountain men who believed the bright flaws in the Night Glass to be distant Suns.  They believed the Wanderers to be other worlds like our own. In contradiction of common sense and observation, their Sun did not circle the Earth but the other way around.

–From Jeffrey Rotter’s second novel The Only Words That Are Worth Rememberinga chaotic romp following the much maligned Van Zandt family as they try escape the law in a near-future America, where astronomy has become a fairy tale, and Earth has returned to its pre-Copernican status as the center of the Universe.
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