“River of Heaven” (天の川)

by Leanne Ogasawara

04HAWAII1-superJumboIt has been three long years since I was last on the summit of Mauna Kea. But at last, we were heading back up the mountain to see my husband's new instrument being installed on one of the telescopes at the KECK observatory. An experimental astro-physicist at Caltech, he and his team have designed a cutting-edge spectrograph for measuring and imaging the cosmic web. KCWI will be the ninth instrument between the two KECK telescopes on Mauna Kea and will become a wonderful boon to astronomers working in low brightness.

More importantly, though, this instrument had brought me back to Hawaii (Just kidding!).

The summit is other-worldly. In one respect, it reminds me of being in the Himalaya–as Mauna Kea is high enough to evoke that breathless, cloudless, stark lunar-scape quality one finds on the road to Ladakh. But this is Hawaii. So, rather than leaving behind the alpine beauty of Kashmir, on Mauna Kea you are but two hours away from mind-bogglingly gorgeous tropical beaches. It is unreal to see snow up there. Snow on Hawaii. A sleeping volcano, like Mt. Fuji, it is indescribably beautiful standing at the summit and watching the clouds roiling beneath you–on a good day you can see Hilo Bay off in the distance.

As you've no doubt heard, not everyone is happy to see this sublime landscape filling up with observatories. As of today, there are some twelve domes and a few scattered infrared and submilliter telescopes dotting the Martian-like landscape on the summit. In addition to KECK, other well-known observatories include the Gemini telescope (with its twin in Chile) and the Japanese beauty Subaru.

I wonder how many people probably have been reading about the controversy surrounding the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT)?

Trying to do everything possible to meet the expectations of the native Hawaiian movement, the consortium (Caltech and UC; plus Canada, Japan, China and India) chose a spot not on the summit itself but in recessed spot below the summit, so that the massive dome would not be visible from below. The spot was cleared by archaeologists so as to guarantee it is not a burial place and it was also cleared by ecologists. Despite what would be a huge boon to the economy and great advantage to students in the University of Hawaii system, representatives of the movement felt enough was enough– and the gigantic telescope project is not going forward as planned. When I was there recently, I was talking on the beach with a couple from Canada about the situation, and they reminded me that this issue is not just about Mauna Kea or the native people of the Big Island, but rather all around the world, native peoples are being stepped all over. The pipeline immediately comes to mind. This controversy over TMT is bigger than this mountain. A small group was here protesting at Caltech Friday and one of the protester's signs really sticks in my mind.

It read, "Standing Rock is everywhere." (Article in local paper is here; my husband is the scientist quoted at the end).

So, the scientists might need to go elsewhere. It's not easy, of course, since Mauna Kea is one of only two nearly perfect spots in the world to make astronomical observations.

What makes it so perfect?

Well, first, the mountain is above more than 50 percent of the earth's atmosphere. And being so remote and on an island in the earth's mid-latitudes, the air travels in without the many ripples (turbulence) you find in the middle of continents. This smoothness makes for very stable atmospheric conditions and therefore better observations. And also very important, it is very dark on the Big Island. Only the high altitude Atacama desert in Chile can compete. Indeed, according to award-winning astronomer Andrea Ghez, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles who has published the most compelling proof of black holes to date, Mauna Kea is “the best place in the world to do astronomy.” (Article here).

But perfect though it is, the astronomers are reconciling themselves to the possibility of moving on; and it was announced after debating sites in Chile, they had chosen Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in La Palma in the Canary Islands as their alternative backup site.

La Palma is not nearly as ideal–but it has long been renown for its dark skies.

I just finished a book about this subject of dark skies, and the author makes quite a point about the glories of the night sky in La Palma.

Reading Paul Bogard's The End of the Night: Searching for Dark Skies in an Age of Artificial Light, which I cannot recommend enough to you, felt like a miracle to me. When I was a kid, I devoured books on astronomy and poured over night-sky atlases. Steven Weinberg, whose latest book I wrote about here in these pages last March, was the first cosmologist I read when I was around 14 and his book The First Three Minutes became an early obsession. I had a small Celestron telescope and spent countless hours in the street in front of our house looking at the glory of the night sky. All my life, I have loved the stars. In Japan, this all took a different turn, since the skies there are never great for star viewing–and yet, people do it. Gazing at the moon and stars is a time-honored occupation–and there are the two great moon festivals in Japan.

The great Lafcadio Hearn famously said that,

To ancient Chinese fancy, the Milky Way was a luminous river, – the River of Heaven, – the Silver Stream.

The Japanese call the silver river (銀河), the "river of heaven" 天の川. Every July, there is the star festival celebrating the two Milky Way lovers, Tanabata (this ancient festival is sometimes called Chinese Valentine's Day in English). Also by chance one of my closest friends was also obsessed with astronomy and she worked at a local planetarium. We watched meteor showers and would go firefly viewing, star gazing and moon viewing… with mooncakes and sake galore. Coming back to LA after twenty-two years, it was in so many ways like the end of night. You would think being married to an astrophysicist would have alleviated this issue, but it didn't. For my astrophysicist only has eyes for things with large red shifts and that does not include the milky way.

And, anyway, the sky itself has changed.

When I was a kid you could easily see the Milky Way from our LA suburb… there were not thousands of stars but definitely hundreds. But now? You cannot see much at all anymore and the Milky Way is long gone. How can only thirty years have changed so much? They say air pollution is dramatically improved since I was a kid so at first, I could not understand the dramatic difference in the sky. I asked everyone. And no one seemed to have given it much thought since for them, the change had happened so gradually.

It was after seeing the stars that night on Mauna Kea three years ago that brought this all home to me. So much has been lost.

3055412ef75ee660a2fe1f5c96f8ea62Up in those dark Hawaiian skies on the top of the mountain, we stood outside the dome waiting in the freezing cold night. Allowing our eyes to get used to darkness; it took several minutes, but finally they began to appear— stars upon stars upon stars. First Jupiter, more beautiful than I had ever seen her; followed by several very familiar constellations –old friends that I have not seen in decades. And then finally–at long last– the vision of the Milky Way appeared before our eyes in all its majesty. 幽玄。The vision made me sad because I realized my son would not grow up seeing this. And this led us to start spending more time in our national parks.

For beside being badass in so many other ways, the national parks are also centers for the dark sky movement.

In fact, I bought Bogard's book at the dark sky mecca of Moab National Park. Paying for it at the shop in the Information Center, the ranger behind the register said, "This is an important book, you know." I couldn't agree more. It is an important book.

Bogard quotes Pierre Brunet, who is an activist at France's Association Nationale pour la Protection du Ciel et ,"Environnement Nocturnes, who says that, "the presence of an astronomer is a sign of a healthy ecosystem; that when the astronomers go away, you know the sky is polluted–and whatever has polluted the sky will eventually pollute other resources given time." This is to say that light pollution is more than just a shame for romantics and poets. For not only are the practices that cause light pollution hugely wasteful and expensive (electricity), but they adversely effect wildlife and human life. Bogard believes "the end of night" affects our human health in a way akin to noise pollution. BY chance, last night I stumbled on a Jason Silva video about why we are so depressed; he says depression has become an epidemic. Suicide is sky high. Anxiety and depression is a soul sickness, he says….

…According to the World Health Organization, DEPRESSION is now the world's most widespread illness…

Something is missing in our lives, Silva says. That something which hooks us into something bigger than ourselves. The rat race is not working for us. The things we buy are not making us happy and judging our kids by these same standards isn't doing them any favors either. We are ruining the planet and we cannot help but feel we have had and lost some great infinite something, he says.

In my first 3Quarks post of 2017 in the Sound of Lotus Blossoming, I wrote about the loss of the natural soundscape and suggested that being embedded in a "soundscape" demands a certain two-way, give-and-take hearing –or to use the philosophical word– it demands an atunement of oneself to the local environment/community and to place (terroir). That is because when you stop and listen, you thereby come to belong to the land as much as the land belongs to you–even if just in that moment. The world is no longer a resource to be efficiently consumed but instead becomes lit up and embodied with voice and with sentiment. To be more inter-connected, so as to be better able to heed Pope Francis' call to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.

5112064I love this picture of the painter Morris Graves. In novelist's Tom Robbins' memoir, Tibetan Peach Pie, he tells a charming story that I like about Graves, who:

"Verged on nonliterary eloquence when he told me about being awakened before dawn one morning in India by a strange, beautiful, hypnotic sound, a kind of marvelous chanting. At breakfast, he learned that in that village, as in some others in India, the men and boys have gone out each morning since prehistory to chant the sun up. “Cynics scoff,” said Graves with a smile, “but the villagers point out that in all the millennia that they’ve been chanting, the sun has never failed to rise.”

When NASA scientists invited the mystical painter to Cape Kennedy to advise them on matters about which they were becoming increasingly uneasy — areas where astronomy, theoretical physics, and higher mathematics seemed to be inescapably crossing the line into the province of metaphysics — Graves told them about the Indian chanters, suggesting that NASA might do well to incorporate a similarly reverential, less brutal attitude toward space exploration. Graves found many scientists receptive, even agreeing when he argued that to truly “conquer” space, men need to travel inward as well as outward, and do so with the same focus, seriousness, effort, courage, and determination they would devote to searching for life on Mars or establishing a colony on the moon."

It is right and a good thing to look to our leaders and the scientific elite to solve our problems. Most dramatic and effecting change happens when it is demanded from above. In my life, some of the greatest changes have happened at the level of cities, involving science and politics. But there is also a more fundamental question about the culture. If we ourselves (all of us) view nature as a resource to be conquered or used (standing reserve as Heidegger warned), we are lost.

I am with Bogard who ends his beautiful book by remarking how "upside down this world has become where what was once a most common human experience has become most rare. When a child might grow into adulthood without ever seeing the Milky Way and never feel as though lifted from earth into surrounding stars…"

May we find a way to give back the sky to our children.


Top image by NYTimes (Large here) "A panorama of the Milky Way from Mauna Kea, Hawaii. From left, University of Hawaii 2.2 Meter Telescope, Mauna Kea Summit, Kilauea Volcano under cloud cover …"

HIGHLY recommended: A Sky Wonderful with Stars: 50 Years of Modern Astronomy on Maunakea, by Michael J West and The End of the Night: Searching for Dark Skies in an Age of Artificial Light, by Paul Bogard

KCWI at First Light

My 3QD post on Global Warning: The Sound of Lotus Blossoming and Being Badass

My 3QD post on my last trip to KECK: Snow on Hawaii

The World Atlas of Air Pollution

A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks

NYTImes: Streetlight Fight in Rome

For C…