Last weekend, I was supposed to be at the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s 2021 National Convention in Boston. It would have been my first freethought conference ever. I had every second of our two days in Boston planned, down to dinner reservations, outfits, and bookstores. The five books I wanted signed were packed in my backpack, and my nails were even painted galaxy to be on-theme (even if no one noticed but me).
Literally three hours before we were to start our 10-hour drive from Pittsburgh, I got the worst sore throat I’ve ever had and I knew I was going nowhere. I was on the couch or in bed for four days in a row, barely able to speak or move. The only good thing that came out of this extra time sitting around was that I read The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers by Emily Levesque.
What astronomers do
One of my only complaints about The Last Stargazers actually leads to my very favorite thing about it, and that is that the title doesn’t exactly explain what the book is about. Simply, on the last page, Levesque describes, “I wrote this book to capture the human stories of working at telescopes.” If the title was more literal, it might not have drawn me in like it did. But I’m so glad it was a book about what astronomers do. It was thoroughly fascinating, but more importantly, fun and funny, and it taught me more about the lives of astronomers than I knew there was to know.
You could have a friend whom you could ask, “What do you do for a living?” and they might say, “I’m an astronomer.” You know that they’re interested in stars and they probably know their way around a telescope, but you have no idea what their work week entails. Or maybe you’re like Levesque yourself, a teenager who knows wholeheartedly that you want to be an astronomer when you grow up, but you still do not really know what astronomers actually do. This book answers that question. Anyone can enjoy it, but I would say that teenagers contemplating a career as an astronomer would benefit the most.
After reading this I would venture a guess that astronomers spend most of their time analyzing data and—shockingly—doing math, chemistry, and physics. However, there are tons of books about those topics, for the general public about the discoveries or for students about the technical science behind it. As far as I know, this is the only book the describes the wacky, goofy antics in which astronomers are just people who at times have no idea what they are doing, or who are just in awe at the sky, or who need to problem solve on the fly.
A fried cloud of bees
Astronomers are an elite group who deal with immense and expensive equipment all around the world, and their field is changing fast; they have more than a few crazy stories. Here are some of my favorite out-of-context snippets from their stories:
Astronomers periodically checking the camera for clouds will occasionally wind up getting an eyeful of fluffy owl butt or a curious giant-eyed face peering back at them.p. 92
Even with the occasional pooping bird or fried cloud of bees, it’s tempting to think of life at a radio observatory as pretty cushy. You can observe through any weather, climb around on the dishes like giant jungle gyms, and apparently, it even rains kittens.p. 152
The net effect was a bunch of NASA rocket scientists pedaling around a tiny remote Pacific island like a bunch of overgrown twelve-year-olds out after curfew, bike lamps on and research gear strapped to their fenders or backs.p. 179
When the cook proclaimed in surprise that the little worm was alive, half the people eating lunch hurried over to get a look; they eventually dubbed the worm Oscar and kept it alive in the galley for a little while.p. 182
Since I’d just slammed enough caffeine to jump-start a wooly mammoth, I was left twitching in my living room, geared up for an observing run that was almost certainly not going to happen. Lesson learned: coffee after confirming the night is on.p. 254
Clearly, this book entertained me and kept a smile on my face during a tough time, and I’m grateful for that. I did have one more complaint, though, but it was gladly addressed, even if not resolved, halfway through the book.
I was startled on the very first page of The Last Stargazers when Levesque said she was observing “on top of the highest mountain in Hawaii.” I was immediately reminded of the significance of this mountain for astronomy and for Hawai’i as told in Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s The Disordered Cosmos that I read earlier this year.
In her book, Prescod-Weinstein explained that astronomers were trying to move forward in building the Thirty-Meter Telescope, or TMT, on Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain on the Big Island of Hawai’i—but the mountain, or mauna, is sacred Native Hawaiian land. I was immediately stunned that scientists would do this, as I lamented in my review of The Disordered Cosmos. Prescod-Weinstein is not Native Hawaiian, but a Black particle physicist and theoretical cosmologist who is a very outspoken ally of the Hawaiian protectors of the mauna.
What I didn’t realize was that the TMT would not be the first telescope to be built on Mauna Kea, which caused me some confusion during The Last Stargazers. Levesque’s experiences were not at the TMT, which has not been built, but at the twin Keck telescopes.
A mountain of one’s own
This was cleared up in the chapter “A Mountain of One’s Own,” which is dedicated to gender and race inequality in astronomy, as well as Levesque’s perspective on the Mauna Kea controversy (if you can call it that). Levesque got her PhD from the University of Hawai’i, and it is safe to say that she personally would greatly benefit from the TMT’s existence.
But Levesque is not a monster. Her opinions seem fair and even-handed as she examines both sides of the controversy. I was surprised that Levesque took such a different approach than Prescod-Weinstein had; the latter was not even-handed or both-sidesing at all. That’s not a bad thing; Prescod-Weinstein has no tolerance for Western science encroaching on Indigenous land.
It got interesting when Levesque endorsed the views of Hawai’i-based astronomer Thayne Currie. I had never heard of him before, but from Levesque’s descriptions, Currie seems passionate about compromise and calmly explaining his side—and debunking myths—to Hawaiian protestors, who Levesque says were willing to listen and dialogue with Currie more often than not.
I was surprised to read that there were “untruths popping up again and again” regarding TMT, most that it would have a worse environmental impact than it actually would. As a matter of fact, the University of Hawai’i had made many concessions in order to compromise with the Native Hawaiians, such as removing two of the smaller telescopes that were already there.
Making up my mind
Since Prescod-Weinstein’s opinion in her book seemed so objectively morally correct, I didn’t expect to be swayed by any pro-TMT arguments; I actually didn’t expect to encounter any in Levesque’s book at all. I still don’t think I feel comfortable taking a side opposite that of Indigenous Hawaiian fighting for sovereignty, but I appreciate that Levesque provided details about TMT that Prescod-Weinstein simply didn’t.
This shouldn’t really be a hard choice to make. Of course, especially after reading the rest of Levesque’s book, I can only imagine the amazing things we can see and learn about the universe from such a huge telescope in such an ideal location. But if the question is “Should we cross the picket line of Native Hawaiians and invade their sacred land so that we can build another telescope that they don’t consent to?” my answer is going to have to be no every time.
The only thing swaying me is that accurate, quality information seems hard to come by. Currie and Prescod-Weinstein feud with each other both on Twitter and in these books themselves, and I can’t help but want them to all get along. Currie argues that there are Native Hawaiians who are in support of TMT, and there are, such as the group Imua TMT. But there are other groups, such as Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, Mauna Kea Hui, and clearly a lot of individual protestors/protectors who are fervently against it. Some of them are willing to die to protect their land.
I thought that this paper, written by, yes, Prescod-Weinstein, but also a handful of other Native Hawaiian scientists and allies, was the best piece of detailed information that I could find thanks to the University of Hawai’i. It addresses a lot of points that were not in The Disordered Cosmos, which I was grateful for. It does not simply argue that the TMT should not be built, but that construction should be halted immediately until consent is provided from a diverse group of Native Hawaiian elders. If consent is not given, then the astronomers must be willing to lose this fight and find another location.
One of the most noteworthy things, in my opinion, was debunking a survey that Currie himself had cited in a tweet:
In contrast to an oft-cited survey, which suggested that 72% of Native Hawaiians were in support of TMT (March 2018, N = 78), more recent assessments with larger sample sizes show that closer to 27% of the Native Hawaiians polled were in support of TMT (September 2019, N = 400). Given this shift in opinion, a clearer assessment of Hawaiian community views is imperative.A Native Hawaiian-led summary of the current impact of constructing the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea, January 2020, p. 5
At this point it feels like the controversy of building the TMT on Mauna Kea devolves into drama between two non-Native scientists bickering at each other on Twitter, confusing us all and muddling the facts. It was clear in The Last Stargazers that Levesque simply wants everyone to get along and enjoy the telescope together. If only it was that simple. At the end of “A Mountain of One’s Own,” she writes,
In all the protests against the TMT, there have been no signs or chants or hashtags aimed at astronomy itself. The protestors are not decrying telescopes themselves as forces of evil. They are not lambasting some perceived horrors of astronomical research or insulting scientists because of what they study.
What the protests are about changes depending on whom you ask: environmental protection, cultural rights, religion, sovereignty, or simply being able to exert power in a fight for the mountain. For many protestors, it’s a mixture of all of these, but it’s never been about the actual TMT itself. The question now seems to be whether the TMT and other telescopes like it are doomed collateral damage in these debates or whether they can come to coexist with their detractors, ultimately being built in a way that respects the mountains they’re on.Emily Levesque, The Last Stargazers, pp. 141-142
I wish I could end this here, but I don’t think that the situation can be as sunshine-and-rainbows as Levesque wishes it could be. The above paper responds to similar points to Levesque’s:
Both in the Hawaiian Islands and on a broader scale, astronomy education and public outreach relies on narratives that curiosity about space is a uniting “human” experience. . . . However, astronomers wishing to share the results of their scientific efforts cannot expect to have receptive audiences indefinitely: millions of people across the world have witnessed our elders being arrested in July 2019 on social media and major news outlets. These visual records of astronomer complicity with state violence have indelibly marred astronomy’s claims to a shared humanity. If astronomers wish to return to sharing the results of their research with a receptive public, . . . they must find a path forward that centers the legitimate concerns of Native Hawaiians.A Native Hawaiian-led summary of the current impact of constructing the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea, January 2020, p. 7
I definitely don’t disagree with the wish to unite humanity with a love of the stars, for the mainstream scientists and the Hawaiians to thrive together. Hopefully one day they can. But we have to accept that that might only be possible without the beloved Thirty-Meter Telescope.
Mauna Kea controversy notwithstanding—and unlike this post, it made up a very small portion of the book—I really enjoyed The Last Stargazers. It was surprisingly funny and easy to read. As someone who admires science but is content never pursuing it professionally, I had a lot of fun peeking into the daily lives of astronomers. According to Levesque, there may not be many more astronomers who will spend much time in observatories thanks to the relatively new capabilities of telescopes to be operated remotely. That makes this book all the more special, a glimpse into a time that we might not get back. I’m very glad to have been invited into this world.