Astronomers Land In Isles

By Timothy Hurley in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Experts on stars, planets and all things cosmic descend on Oahu for a global gathering

An international gathering of astronomers began in Honolulu on Monday, a two week event that University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy Director Gunther Hasinger described as “the Olympic Games of our discipline.”

But the prestigious International Astronomical Union General Assembly, held in Hawaii for the first time, could not escape the specter of controversy that has dogged astronomy here for the past four months.

The Thirty Meter Telescope was never mentioned by name at the opening ceremony at the Hawai‘i Convention Center, but several speakers made reference to the dispute over the planned $1.4 billion project expected to send ground-based astronomy to new heights.

Among them was Gov. David Ige, who asked the assembly to join him in trying to resolve the conflict. “As you are seeing before you, resolving conflict is not going to be easy or quick,” he said. “We do not seem to be talking with each other, but at each other. I believe there can be a resolution. We need to begin by listening to each other — truly listening — and trying to understand perspectives entirely different from our own. We need to hear the frustration of those who feel unheard. We need to find ways to honor as many interests as we can. I am committed to that path and ask you to join me on it.”

UH President David Lassner told the astronomers that some consider the mountaintops of Hawaii sacred, a fact that poses significant challenges for island astronomy.

“They’ve been alluded to, and I’m sure you’ve read about them in the media and social media. These are real issues and passions, and beliefs today are intense and we have not come to agreement,” he said.

Lassner added that Hawaii should be known not only as a location with the best astronomical viewing conditions, but also as “a global exemplar for stewardship,” combining modern science with the culture, knowledge and wisdom of the indigenous people.

Meanwhile, TMT telescope foes said they are planning a 10 a.m. news conference Tuesday at the convention center to talk about the Aloha Aina Unity March planned for Waikiki on Sunday. The event, they said, is aimed at putting the spotlight on threatened lands that are sacred to Hawaiians, including Mauna Kea and Haleakala.

Organizers said the location of the news conference was chosen because it gives the greatest exposure to the astronomers as they show up for the day’s events.

More than 2,500 astronomers from 75 countries are expected to attend the 11day event, which will feature thousands of scientific presentations and numerous policy discussions. Participants are expected to address key topics in contemporary astronomy and assess the latest scientific progress in a number of specialized areas.

With six symposiums extending over several days, 22 multisession focus meetings, nine IAU division meetings, dozens of IAU commission meetings and daily poster sessions, the convention’s scientific program will be the broadest in the union’s history, organizers said.

A number of UH astronomers will be making presentations, including Brent Tully, who led the discovery of the Laniakea Supercluster, and Andrew Howard, who will speak on the demographics of planets.

UH astronomer Jessica Lu and her graduate students will present several posters on very massive and young star clusters.

“Having the IAU in Hawaii is a tremendous opportunity for University of Hawaii astronomy students to attend and meet world-renowned astronomers. It is essential for students to practice presenting their work and dealing with feedback from experts,” she said.

Lu said she’s looking forward to discovering new ideas and perspectives.

“Because the IAU general assembly spans all of astronomy, I may get ideas from astronomers in other subdisciplines that I wouldn’t normally encounter. I am also looking forward to seeing new results from my astronomy colleagues that work on star formation, massive clusters and studies of the center of our Milky Way,” Lu said.

This will be the first IAU general assembly to be held in the United States since 1988. The American Astronomical Society is the national host organization, with support from UH as well as observatories and other astronomy-related institutions in the islands.

“The IAU is delighted to bring our triennial general assembly to the state of Hawaii, a place that is truly special in the astronomical community as one of the foremost sites for astronomical research in the world,” Thierry Montmerle, IAU general secretary, said in a news release.

“We look forward to introducing thousands of astronomers to these beautiful islands and their cultural traditions while showcasing Hawaii as a key location for world-class science,” he said.

The Hawaii event has been in the planning stages since 2009, when it was selected as the 2015 host site during the XVII General Assembly in Rio de Janeiro. The proposal won over proposals presented by Paris and Calgary, Alberta.

Officials said the gathering will have an estimated economic impact of between $10 million and $20 million, as many of the astronomers will likely vacation before returning home.

There are a some events open to the public, including one at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday featuring Kalepa Baybayan, “pwo” (master) navigator with Imiloa Astronomy Center and Polynesian Voyaging Society. He will present “He Lani Ko Luna, A Sky Above: In losing the sight of land, you discover the stars” at the Hawai‘i Convention Center

Registration is required. Free tickets are available at askyabove.

From 7:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday, the Hokulani Imaginarium at Windward Community College will offer “Cosmic Rays and Maunakea Between Earth & Sky,” a free show.

On Monday, children’s science book author Jeffrey Bennet will hold a book signing at 7 p.m. and then present “What Is Relativity?” at the UH-Manoa Art Auditorium, 2500 Campus Road.

The Name ExoWorlds Ceremony will precede two scientific talks slated for 7 and 9 p.m. Aug. 11 at the Hawai’i Convention Center. The ceremony will launch public voting for the naming of some newly discovered exoplanets, which are planets around other stars.

The first talk, “The Development of Modern Astronomy in Hawaii,” will be given by Hasinger, director of the UH Institute for Astronomy; and the second, “The Black Hole in the Galactic Centre,” by Andrea Ghez of UCLA.

Registration is required. Free tickets are available at

On Aug. 13 at sundown there will be a stargazing party at Ala Moana Beach Park. The event is being billed as the ultimate stargazing experience with telescopes and astronomy experts serving as guides to the night sky.

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