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Pushing our vision farther April 19, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science, Superstition.
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Mauna_Kea_observatoryIt’s been 400 years since Galileo pointed his telescope at the heavens and the Roman Inquisition convicted him of heresy; nowadays, many people insist that there’s no conflict between science and religion — that was all just a medieval misunderstanding, whereas modern faith has left superstitious ignorance behind. Astronomy, certainly, has come a long way since Galileo: in fact, they’re about to build an awesome Thirty Meter Telescope on top of Mauna Kea, Hawaii:

TMT scientists selected Maunakea after a rigorous five-year campaign spanning the entire globe that measured virtually every atmospheric feature that might affect the performance of the telescope. Located above approximately 40 percent of Earth’s atmosphere, the site at Maunakea has a climate that is particularly stable, dry, and cold; all of which are important characteristics for capturing the sharpest images and producing the best science…

The TMT telescope will provide extremely sharp images that will allow astronomers to see much fainter and more distant objects than possible with existing telescopes, and to study them in greater detail. This represents the possibility of pushing our vision farther into space and our understanding farther back in time to help answer fundamental questions about the universe. It is very likely that TMT will enable discoveries that we cannot even begin to anticipate today…

Following a lengthy 7-year public and agency review, all required state and county permits were issued to the Thirty Meter Telescope.

So how soon does it open? Well, funny story.

A nonprofit company planning to build one of the world’s biggest telescopes on a mountain many Native Hawaiians consider sacred will continue to postpone construction, Hawaii Gov. David Ige said Friday.

This is the second time the Thirty Meter Telescope has extended a moratorium on building at the summit of Mauna Kea, the highest peak on the Big Island of Hawaii…

The company suspended building after law enforcement arrested protesters for blocking the road to the summit and refusing to leave the construction site.

Scientists say Mauna Kea’s summit above cloud cover offers some of the world’s best conditions for viewing the skies. But some Native Hawaiians believe their creation story begins atop the mountain. It’s also a burial site for ancestors and a home to deities.

(That’s some stellar reporting from the Associated Press, by the way: first, implying that the telescope would encroach on a burial ground, whereas, according to the TMT Foundation, “The selected site has no archaeological shrines or features, no endangered plants, no endangered bugs and no burials”; then stating, without qualification, that the mountain is “a home to deities” — is that a fact?)

Despite the irony of opposing a project that seeks to better understand the origins of the universe because of parochial myths about the origin of the universe, some will argue that we should respect people’s heartfelt traditions and beliefs, even if we don’t share them ourselves. But where does it end? We also have Jews who refuse to sit next to women on airplanes, Christians whose businesses won’t serve same-sex couples, etc. — and I don’t think irrational demands should be given respect they don’t deserve. We got out of the Dark Ages by valuing reason and evidence over superstition and authority, and that is the key to building a healthy society that can face the challenges of the future. Those who wish to sanctify their traditions and be bound by them may do so, but they’re not sacred to the rest of us, and we mustn’t let them hold us back as we aim for the stars.

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