Dr. Michael Bolte
Many astronomers involved with TMT are not based on the island, and Dr. Michael Bolte, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, was one of them. I sat outside at the Sweet Cane Café in Hilo while Dr. Bolte Zoomed in from his home in California. Music is a passion of his, he explained while gesturing to the four guitars behind him in his music room.
I sipped my cane-sweetened coffee on the side patio, grateful for Dr. Bolte’s patience in explaining the science behind telescopes. My sophomore year astronomy class notes weren’t exactly fresh in my mind, so Dr. Bolte answered all my questions about the advantages of having a telescope of thirty meters. When discussing the opposition, I was surprised at the reverence in his tone. He addressed the concerns local people have expressed to him about TMT in a direct manner, and while he is firm in his beliefs that Mauna Kea is the ideal location for the telescope, he invited a dialogue about cultural sensitivity.
According to Dr. Michael Bolte, a leading astronomer at UC Santa Cruz, astronomy didn’t truly begin until the first telescopes were built. While he recognized that Native Hawaiians could use the night sky for navigation and to tell time, he said all the discoveries happen when astronomers reach the next level of telescope improvement.
“Even those little, two-inch telescopes that Galileo had opened up a huge amount of things,” he said. “He could see the moons of Jupiter, and he could see that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe.”
The Thirty Meter Telescope, he said, is the next level of telescope improvement that will allow us to see parts of the galaxy that can’t be seen with the ten-meter Keck telescopes that are already on Mauna Kea.
The bigger a telescope is, the more photons it can catch per second. This allows the observer to see fainter things that are further away. The Keck telescopes allow observers to see out to when the universe was about a third of its current age, but TMT would allow them to look back in time to when the universe was an adolescent. The reason for selecting this size was because it would let astronomers see all the way through the observable universe, right back to the beginning of space time.
“We live in a galaxy of 400 billion stars,” Bolte said. “We can look at the nearby stars and take spectra and measure all kinds of things — what they're made of and how they're moving through space. But as you go to the edges of the galaxy, we can only see the very brightest stars. With TMT, we can look at many more stars throughout the entire galaxy. These studies about how the galaxy came to be and how chemical elements came to be in the universe will be greatly enhanced by having more light-collecting ability.”
TMT would be the fourteenth telescope on Mauna Kea. The telescopes that came before have a long history that goes back to 1968. The bay in Hilo has a unique funnel-like shape that amplifies the effects of tsunamis, which caused all of downtown Hilo to get inundated with devastating tsunamis in the 1960s. After the second major tsunami, officials on the island were looking for ways to generate income and rebuild the economy. This was when they realized that Mauna Kea was an ideal site for studying astronomy with telescopes. The first telescope on Mauna Kea completed construction in 1970, and according to Bolte, the mayor, the governor and lots of business leaders were in support of this.
Over twenty years later, when the California Institute of Technology built the two 10-meter Keck telescopes, lots of construction jobs opened up.
“We hired about 120 people, and spend about $16 million a year,” Bolte said. “And all of that money gets put in the local economy. And that's what those people were thinking about back in 1968.”
Despite the economic advantages of Mauna Kea being used as an astronomy site, there’s plenty of opposition to TMT. In 2015, the construction team was unable to go to the summit due to opposers blocking the Access Road. Bolte said that the contested case they had held was judged to have been done in the wrong order, so the Supreme Court rescinded the permit and told them to do another contested case, which ended up taking two years. But eventually, the Supreme Court did rule in favor of TMT.
But when they attempted again to go to the summit in July of 2019, they were stopped by even bigger groups of people.
“I'm a college professor,” Bolte said. “We don't do things that require the National Guard in riot gear. It's just not what universities do. So we're not going to force our way up there. The 5000 people on the road was a very effective way to shut this down.”
After being blocked again, the TMT team looked at sites in Mexico, California and the Canary Islands. Although these were considered three of the best northern hemisphere sites, the team concluded that Mauna Kea really was “the best window to the universe on Earth.”
Many opposers whom Bolte has spoken with agree that astronomy, science and exploring the universe is a good thing, as there are people who object to the telescope but don't object to astronomy.
"Astronomy is a beautiful extension of what Hawaiians have done for 500 years with the sky," he said. "We're not building a McDonald's."
Bolte has heard all sorts of reasons why TMT should not be built on Mauna Kea, but likens many of them to wild conspiracy theories.
“They’re saying that the water system up there is the source of water for the entire island, and that those telescopes are going to poison the water system,” he said. “If you look at the environmental impact statement, there’s a giant hydrological report about how water moves around Mauna Kea. And no water from the summit goes into Hilo faucets. For one thing, it's so dry up there — it almost never rains. It snows, but that all sublimes straight in the air; it doesn't melt and become water. But the other thing is that the way these shield volcanoes are built, there are these water-impermeable layers. So all that stuff has been demonstrated quite convincingly — we're not going to poison the water system.”
Bolte said that some of the angry questions he’s been lambasted with are so rampant, that it drives him a little nuts to correct them.
“We’re not going to have nuclear generators up there to produce the power,” he said. “We’re not a secret arm of the military. I’ve heard all kinds of crazy stuff about how we use artificial lasers for our adaptive optics. None of that stuff is true.”
Despite these things, Bolte describes his relationship with those in opposition to TMT as respectful and not contentious at all.
“Back when I was new at all of this, we had to have a number of public meetings as part of the environmental impact statement where you describe what the telescope is going to do and how it impacts environmental culture,” he said. “We had a couple of those over on the Kona side. And they were very friendly with people asking questions.”
Everybody warned him that meetings would be different on the Hilo side, and he soon realized why. At the first meeting on the Hilo side in a high school auditorium, people stood up and personally attacked Bolte, as well as astronomers in general.
“Finally, the thing is over, and I'm sitting in my chair thinking, ‘I'm afraid to go out to my car,’” he said. “‘There's really some anger here, and I'm not very comfortable.’ So I walked to my car in a dark corner. And there's a group of people waiting there, including many of the people who had spoken so vehemently against me specifically. As I get close, they all run over, shake my hand, introduce themselves and ask me questions, like ‘What kind of astronomy do you do?’ So, inside and outside, it was completely different. That's when I first realized 20 years ago that people have some things that they're fighting for here. But outside of that, it's an extremely peaceful culture. It's a culture that you would really like to be part of.”
Bolte doesn’t see TMT as the antithesis of cultural sensitivity. There is a group of Native Hawaiians from the University of Hawai'i that manages the mountain, and they give astronomers advice on how to manage the telescope’s construction in a more considerate manner.
This group advised them to get telescopes out of the summit region and off to the less sensitive areas. In following this advice, TMT will be sited on a lava field that is more than a mile from the summit.
“From the actual summit, you wouldn't even be able to see TMT," Bolte said. "There are still some people who would say that anything that goes on up there is too much, but these pictures that get put up show the telescope being built on this actual summit, dominating. It’s just not what goes on. It’s not the plan at all.”
Cultural sensitivity wasn’t widely talked about back in 1968 when people first started building telescopes on Mauna Kea. When the 1970s rolled around, there was a rebirth of Kānaka Maoli culture as people started to have conversations and realize that they could lose the language and traditions. That was the beginning of the Hawaiian renaissance.
People came to realize that there were sacred spaces all throughout the earth. Hawaiian culture emphasizes respect for the land, and so Mauna Kea was recognized as a sacred space that needs to be protected.
“So starting out in the 1980s, people really paid more attention to the impact of astronomy on Mauna Kea, and all those observatories,” Bolte said. “But it must have been after the Gemini telescope was completed in 2000 when people really said, ‘It's looking like an astronomy city up there,’ and ‘We’ve got to stop building telescopes on the most sensitive of the lands.’”
However, TMT was founded in 2003 by the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy, the University of California and the California Institute of Technology.
“Although I’ll get in trouble with my colleagues for what I'm about to say, I've said for years that because it is such a special place up there, we should only have forefront telescopes up there,” Bolte said. “If you know if something's forty years old, and it's a secondary facility, get rid of it.”
Bolte said that there are three things currently happening. The first one is that the Telescope International Observatory board has stepped back and the baton has been handed to a set of advisors.
On top of this, the state of Hawai'i has put together a committee called the Mauna Kea Working Group, which will be taking a serious look at how the mountain is managed. The ultimate goal of this group is to amplify Native Hawaiian voices. At the end of the year, this group will have a deadline to make a series of recommendations. Bolte said that initially, they did not expect many people in the Native Hawaiian community to participate, “but we’ve gotten some of the leaders of the opposition whom I really respect. Good thinkers. Good, serious people are on that committee.”
Finally, the astronomy community has something called the decadal survey every ten years, in which astronomers group together, and over two years, they study what the future of astronomy should be and specifically what facilities should be advanced. And according to Bolte, the most recent decadal survey will be a good fortune teller.
“If they think that building this next generation’s big telescope is the number one priority, then the National Science Foundation always takes those recommendations seriously and looks for ways to build those facilities,” he said. “I don't speak for the nationals, but the usual way things happen is that if we get a positive report, the NSF will start their due diligence process.”
In other words, a whole different group of faces would step in. State officials, Bolte said, are much more trusted amongst opponents than TMT board members. These people would come in, look at everything and make a different set of decisions.
Bolte truly wants to see this telescope built, but admits to being infinitely patient and overly optimistic in personality. He ultimately hopes for a solution that would have TMT catalyze improvements in mountain management and bigger societal issues affecting the Native Hawaiian community.
He said: “If it turns out TMT was the thing that brought everybody together, one thing that they could all hate, but also come together and articulate, that’s not such a bad legacy.”