As someone who is keen on astronomy, I am of course keen on the Thirty Meter telescope myself. And I've heard those arguments of the astronomers, about how it is an ideal site for astronomy, about the value of the astronomy that can be done with this telescope and so on. But I've also heard the other side too.

There are many telescopes on the summit already, so it's not like they are saying not to build telescopes at all up there.


What you might not realize at first is quite how huge it is - it's difficult to get a sense of scale from the images:

It's higher than the Niagara falls.

Niagara Falls - US Side

It's the same height as as seventeen (or perhaps eighteen) story skyscraper. The same height as the Hill Building in Durham, North Carolina.

JS051 - Historic Postcards of Durham - The North Carolina Collection - Durham County Library

Hill Building Durham

Except, that unlike a skyscraper, it's wide as well, wider than it is high.

And I felt that the native Hawaiians that were talking had a point, and then thought about how I'd feel myself if someone was going to build a seventeen story building on top of Ben Nevis.

See those buildings at the bottom, they are several stories high. But a seventeen story building would be much bigger than those. Put the 30 meter telescope on the summit and it would be very obvious from miles away.

Mount Kea is part of the distinctive silhouette of Hawaii. The other side of the argument talked about how it was the landmark they used to get back to Hawaii from their past long sea journeys. They talk about how it changes the appearance of the mountain.

Yes, it's 13,000 feet high. But the telescope dome is 180 feet high and 217 feet wide. For instance if you had a photo of Mount Kea at 1080 p (HD) then it's

180*1080/13000 = 14 pixels high

217*1080/13000 = 18 pixels wide


This is a mockup I made by just adding an appropriately resized copy of a computer rendering of the telescope to an HD photograph of Mauna Kea. It's more like 10 pixels because of the space above and below the mountain in this photograph. And I haven't taken account of foreshortening. This is its height in pixels if you took a photo of the mountain from a long way away and it took up the same vertical area of the screen as in this photo - I couldn't find a creative commons photograph of Mauna Kea from the distance. And, I haven't tried to put it exactly in the intended location for it, it's just to show the scale of it, not its location.

Still, it's enough to give a rough first idea.

Detail of Photo of Mauna Kea by Prayitno, from Flikr. Combined with computer rendering from the Thirty Meter Telescope website resized appropriately.

The dark blip at the top of the mountain shows roughly how big the TMT would be. Easy to see from a long distance away.

Here is a zoom in on it as that image is reproduced rather low res here

It might be quite noticeable from out at sea. And you can imagine that close up, if it was built at the top of the mountain, it would totally dominate the summit.


The plan is to set it back from the summit, so that reduces the impact quite a bit. As measured from its base it is far higher than any of the existing telescopes, but the top of it is going to be well below the top of the other telescopes. It's base is 150 meters below the summit ridge, and it is situated on the northern plateau. As a result it would be visible from only 14% of the main island.

The height of the existing domes are:

Subaru: 141 feet high, 13 stories.
Keck 111 feet high, 10 stories,
Gemini North 151 feet high, 14 stories.

TMT design is 180 feet high, or getting on for 17 stories. And wider too in proportion.

I got those figures from table 3.6 of the Environment impact survey.

Here is a link to convert feet to stories - it is just a rough idea as it depends on what height you say a story is, so you get different figures for the heights of these buildings in stories.

Here are some renderings:

mikewong's astroblog

This is by way of reflections on the decision last month to overturn permission to build a big telescope in Hawaii due to lack of due process way back in 2011.


Mike Wong is sympathetic to the Hawaiians case, particularly considering some of the past behaviour of astronomers there, though he says others have shown respect.

He writes

"I would rather see the telescope built at an inferior site, rather than built without respect for native values as previous observatories were. But much has changed since observatories began popping up on Mauna Kea. No new observatories will ever be placed atop the summit or on/near sacred pu'u. TMT's construction/operations plan resulted from a process of respectful dialog, and this process also deserves respect." mikewong's astroblog

Here is another rendering

Full resolution version here


I don't think it helps for the astronomers to accuse the native Hawaiians of bad faith here. That's part of the very attitude that caused the problems in the past indeed.

I think it's enough to just say that it is indeed a big building and anywhere in the world something as large as that on top of a mountain would be bound to involve a huge amount of public debate with people divided on whether to build it or not. For the Hawaiians their ideas of Mauna Kea as sacred are part of the mix, and their past history of the polynesian voyagers coming back to Hawaii on long voyages - which is probably why they thought of it as especially sacred originally. But focusing too much on that may not be helpful for the astronomers who don't share their religious ideas. I think it's enough to just acknowledge that it is a huge building and such buildings are likely to be controversial.

And though I'm keen on astronomy and express my views, I have friends and relatives who are not especially interested in astronomy at all.

And I feel that science shouldn't just kind of steamroller over other people's views. So I also feel it is very important to uphold those who are not so keen on science because they have a perspective too, and they can help keep us come to a more balanced view on those things.

Keen though I am on astronomy and science, that doesn't mean I think science has a trump card that means it has to win every argument :).

If I was living in Hawaii I can well imagine being excited about the telescope, wanting to go up and see how they are going with the construction, and keen for first light and wanting such a prestigious and forward looking telescope on my mountain. Same here if such a big telescope was proposed to be built on Ben Nevis, I'd probably be mustering arguments for it, and talking about how they used to have an observatory on Ben Nevis in the past etc. But I also have a strong feeling for mountains too. Not that I think they are sacred particularly. But I'm a keen hill walker, have been in the past especially more so, and some rock climbing, and there is something special about mountains I feel. So there's that side to it too. So I have some sympathy from that point of view also.

Hope this helps. And if there was more meeting of the two sides and appreciation and especially if they followed due process carefully and scrupulously, I think maybe they can find a solution that works for both. Perhaps to do with the location on the mountain, perhaps some way it can be visually less intrusive - they've already moved it from the crater rim but perhaps more can be done in that direction, it doesn't have to be right at the very top to be still an excellent site for astronomy.

And they have every right to reject the project if they decide it is not suitable, just as we would here in the UK to reject a project to build a similarly sized telescope on the summit of Ben Nevis.

See The Heart of the Hawaiian Peoples’ Arguments against the Telescope on Mauna Kea

"Enter the TMT. Now to say Hawaiians are opposed to technology or science is simply wrong. Hawaiians have a long and illustrious tradition of adopting Western technologies. King Kalākaua had electricity in his palace before the White House had it. And he is quoted as follows:

" “It will afford me unfeigned satisfaction if my kingdom can add its quota toward the successful accomplishment of the most important astronomical observation of the present century and assist, however humbly, the enlightened nations of the earth in these costly enterprises…” ~ King Kalākaua, September 1874 as quoted in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, upon arrival of a British expedition of astronomers to Hawaii

"But that was when Hawaiians were in control of their own country, and before the devastating impacts of American rule. Now many are saying “enough.” The TMT, while not being built on one of the sacred puʻu at the summit, will be a much larger and more extensive project than any before, with a building 18 stories tall and an impact on five acres of summit. The project has gone through extensive reviews for its environmental and cultural impacts, and was originally supported by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) in 2009. But in an April 12 poll by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 61 percent of respondents said OHA should oppose the TMT. As OHA Trustee Peter Apo points out, “Hawaiians are joined by ecological and environmental watchdog constituencies with natural resource management concerns about stewardship issues in the state’s management of the geo-cultural landscape of plants, native birds, rare insects, historic sites, and so forth.” "


Sometimes it may seem as if there is no other possible site - that by preventing it from being built on Hawaii they are setting science back a generation or some such.

But there are other sites for the thirty meter telescope. And there's an even larger telescope going to be built in the Atacama desert.

European Extremely Large Telescope - you can see how huge it is by the little person in the rendering. Is under construction in the Atacama desert and first light is expected in 2024.

That's in the southern hemisphere so the astronomers would prefer the thirty meter telescope to be built in the northern hemisphere to complement it.

Anyway, if the TMT can't be built on Hawaii, there's always the Mexico site San Pedro Mártir which has pretty good seeing conditions also, one of only a handful of sites suitable for it world wide, with no objections there as far as I know.

The 1972 0.84m Telescope-SanPedroMartir Observatory-BajaCalifornia-Mexico

And the Mexican site is actually further north than Hawaii, at 31.0456 degrees north, instead of 19.8330 degrees north, so it actually has advantages for sky coverage for the northern hemisphere. For details, see TMT candidate sites

For more about this site: National Astronomical Observatory (Mexico)

It must be a pretty good site as it's going to be the site for this 6.4 meter diameter infrared telescope:

San Pedro Martir Telescope (SPMT)


I think there's a tendency amongst some to think of the Hawaiian religion as "primitive" which doesn't help. Headlines such as Superstition Wins Out as Hawaii Supreme Court Suspends Massive Telescope Construction don't help matters!

Why should a belief in a more powerful god that creates a universe be less superstitious and more authentic than a belief in less powerful gods that are associated with places?

It's not like believing in something more powerful makes it more likely to be true. It sometimes feels as if in religion they have the idea that the person who believes in the most powerful god can beat everyone else. Like a competition in imagining more and more powerful gods to beat everyone else's beliefs. Or more and more virtuous Gods, or kinder Gods etc.

The critics so often talk about the Hawaiian beliefs here as "superstition". But they don't call Christianity "superstition". That's a kind of unacknowledged arrogance that "our religion is better than yours" that I think doesn't further the debate here. I know they aren't doing this deliberately and think they are being considerate, but unacknowledged unrecognized arrogance is the hardest of all to deal with, because you can't see it at all and are incapable of recognizing it as arrogance.

For me, beliefs in ancestor worship, in local deities of places, shamanism, belief in many deities (polytheism), deities that live high in the sky, in deities that created the universe and then leave it alone, or created it and continuously intervene, in the idea of a divine nature in human beings themselves, in a Taoist balance of nature, in a "dream time" as for the Australian aborigines, the Confucian ideas etc, ideas of sacredness of human beings and the world - they are all on the same level.

Any number of beliefs about the nature of the world we live in, our place in it, what counts as sacred, or what happens after you die. There is no way at all to decide between them.

And there is nothing "scientific" about the idea that there is nothing more to this life and universe than what we have been able to discover with our scientific methods, or the belief that when you die that's it.

For sure "scientific atheists" don't have a creed where you have to say "I believe in the power of the scientific method using experiments with physical objects to establish all truths, and I also believe that there is no other method of establishing truth unless it is verified by the scientific method". But that's just because they so take it for granted they don't even need to make it into a creed.

To my mind that is more of a superstition than any religion, because it's unacknowledged, it's like a religion where the practitioners don't even acknowledge the validity of any other way of looking at things. Of course there are many scientists who hold many different religious ideas, or are agnostic, etc. It's just some scientists who subscribe to "scientific atheism". And it's for those particularly, especially when they argue aggressively against religious ideas - that I think - "this chap seems as superstitious or more so in his or her understanding of science as anyone in any religion".

I'm a Buddhist myself, and we don't have a creed or a requirement to affirm belief in deities at all, not in that sense (the Buddhist "deities" are either ways of depicting supreme qualities such as unbounded compassion, wisdom or love rather as they might be in a poem, or they are thought of as just beings like us caught up in the cycle of existence but with longer lives).

But Buddhists do have an idea of a kind of sacredness you can contact in yourself and the world and a truth that you can see for yourself. You can use reasoning, philosophy, science to point at that truth, or you can point to it with poetry also, but at some point you have to see the truth directly for it to have any impact. A kind of truth that goes beyond what you can establish by scientific experiment and reasoning - because something you can see only through reasoning is something you can forget, as well. There's the idea of truths you can see directly that are transformative, that can't be forgotten in that way.

For me that is the path to follow, but I don't feel anyone else should follow that path either.

And you can't disprove any of those beliefs by pointing to violent actions by those who claim to be religious either, as if religion was a cause of violence. Atheists also are violent, many of them. Violence in the name of freedom, or in the name of human rights, or in the name of communism, or fascism, or violence just to grab resources, oil fields or whatever. We find plenty of excuses for violence. I think there's not the slightest shred of evidence that religion leads people to violence, as after all the central message of all the main religions is a message of peace. Though plenty of evidence that violent people often use religion as an excuse for violence.

David Mitchell makes that point here:

And me talking about the "scientific ideas" about life after death and why I don't think the mind is a computer program.

Robert Walker's answer to Is there life after death?

If a program can't understand truth - ethics of artificial intelligence babies

And here Ringu Tulku who talks about Buddhist ideas with simplicity and clarity. He is a proponent of the Rime movement - "no boundaries" - that the Buddha said he taught many different methods for different people - can't say one is right or wrong or higher or lower. I think he has something useful to say to our modern world.

Listen to what he says about the Tibetan Rime "no boundaries" movement (towards the end), and his suggestion that that same approach can be brought to the whole world, many paths, prophets, religious, non religious. and so on. And how differences are something good.

I think applying this approach to the Hawaiian beliefs could help.

Their beliefs need respect as much as anyone's. And the world is far richer for having these various religious ideas. For some people, this is the path they need.

Here are a few videos of Hawaiians putting forward their views.

In favour of the Thirty Meter Telescope:

Against it:

Here is a Hawaiian talking about Mauna Kea as his people's ancestor.



As astronomers and scientists, let's respect these beliefs, that these people are genuine. Let's not be over hasty to call them charlatans because they believe things that don't fit in easily with religions we are more familiar with. I think it is pretty clear that there are many Hawaiians for whom this is a big issue and surely they are genuine in their beliefs here, whatever we make of them.

And please, let's not treat science as a "trump card" that beats everything else. It's natural to feel like that as a scientist. But I think it also helps to have some humility, to recognize that there are other perspectives. And that collectively we may come to better decisions when all perspectives are given their say. And as a default position we need to assume that others are also being genuine in what they say, just as we are, and to assume good faith unless there is clear evidence to the contrary.

And in this particular case, to recognize that building a 17 story building on the top of a mountain is bound to be a matter of controversy, anywhere in the world, especially a distinctive exposed prominent mountain like Mauna Kea, whatever the reasons behind the various views. And so we have to follow due process, and see what happens.

And the Hawaiians themselves also have to work through the ideas, and how it impacts on their beliefs and view of Mauna Kea as sacred. And perhaps they can find a way for the science and culture to co-exist and a way to build the telescope consistent with their views of the sacredness of Mauna Kea.

And if the decision is not to build, well, we've got the backup location in Mexico, which has already been judged good enough for another large leading edge 6.4 meter infrared telescope, and is further north as well. So, it does have advantages especially since there is going to be a similarly large telescope in the Atacama desert to view the southern hemisphere.

The Mexican telescope has more days in the year when you can't observe, or when seeing is poor, compared with Mauna Kea (with weather loss on Gemini observatory for instance, only 23.5%) - but when you can observe, the seeing is often excellent, one of the best sites in the world. Astroclimate at San Pedro Martir and SITE PROSPECTION AT SAN PEDR O MARTIR.

And there would be less overlap between the two telescopes in the Mexican location. So it's not like this is absolutely the only place it can be built.

In this answer, I am not taking any position on whether the telescope should be built or not. It's just affirming the need for due process as something that the Hawaiians also have to work through for themselves, just as would be necessary if they wanted to build it on Ben Nevis or anywhere else in the world.


I'd also like to append the open letter written by the Mauna Kea Hui to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, whose Palo Alto nonprofit Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is one of the key funders for the project - gives some of the islander's perspective on it. It's from 2014, so things have moved on since then, but it gives some of the background.

Aloha pumehana Mr. Moore,

We acknowledge your great contributions as co-founder of Intel Corporation, trustee of the California Institute of Technology, and philanthropic supporter of science, as well as natural resource protection around the world. You have given much to society, and for this, we thank you. We write today, however, regarding your financial backing of an aggressive campaign to build the world’s largest telescope—the Thirty Meter Telescope—atop Mauna Kea.

The summit of Mauna Kea is protected by state and federal laws that support conservation over development because Mauna Kea is home to rare plant and animal species found nowhere else on planet Earth, some on the brink of extinction. Astronomy, including the search for life on other planets, is a noble endeavor, but it loses that nobility when its actions threaten life on Earth. Extinction begins the process of unraveling creation — it is forever, and it is unacceptable, especially in this day and age.

Mauna Kea is one of the most sacred places in the Pacific. Islanders use the mountain as a place of spiritual contemplation, healing and recreation. National Geographic recently named it as one of the Holiest places on Earth. For Native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea is a temple dedicated to Aloha and peace. It is where our supreme being gave birth to all living things. It was the meeting place of Papa (Earth Mother) and Wakea (Sky Father), the progenitors of the Hawaiian people, and is the burial ground of the most revered of Hawaiian ancestors.

Mauna Kea’s high elevation landscape is used for ceremonies that contain star and other knowledge essential to modern Hawaiian voyaging. Hawaiians used this knowledge millennia before modern astronomy to voyage to hundreds of tiny islands spread over ten million square miles of the Pacific. More than ninety-three astronomical sites are available in the world for doing astronomy, but Mauna Kea is the only place on Earth for conducting these ceremonies.

The controversy over the TMT does not end with moral and ethical questions about culture and the environment. There are also legal issues. Caltech and the University of California (UC) have repeatedly built telescopes on Mauna Kea without complying with state and federal environmental laws, escalating the decades-long conflict between the astronomers and islanders.

In the 1990s, despite public outcry about building more telescopes, Caltech and UC, together with NASA, campaigned to build as many as six more “outrigger” telescopes for the Keck observatory, and the people had to turn to the courts for justice. In 2003, a federal judge ordered the Keck project to comply complete a federal environmental impact statement, and in 2007 a state judge voided the Keck permit for Mauna Kea because it violated state law.

Sadly, the TMT Project perpetuates this legacy of lawlessness. As this letter is being written the UH/TMT team have begun work on the TMT Project by grading, excavating and test drilling on the sacred lands of Mauna Kea. Aa group of Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, environmentalists, and public interest advocacy groups are challenging state of Hawai`i’s permit for the TMT as a breach of the public trust in state courts, and University of Hawai`i students are protesting against the university’s lead in the desecration of Mauna Kea. Further, TMT officials have refused to comply with the law requiring a federal EIS, despite receiving millions in federal funds from the National Science Foundation. They’ve also ignored the legal limit on the number of telescopes allowed on the summit. Repeating the same errors the courts previously found unlawful is outrageous. Is this the legacy you wish to leave in Hawaii, Mr. Moore?

Over and over, islanders have peacefully expressed—with aloha—our concerns, yet you and your colleagues continue to push this project without following the law. Aloha is not just a catchy phrase. It’s about truth which is meant to heal.

Mr. Moore, you have a chance to hold the California observatories to a higher standard of Aloha. You and financial influence can help direct the TMT proponents to a peaceful solution, such as supporting stopping the current construction activities on Mauna Kea. You can make a significant shift be choosing not to build the TMT altogether especially since the European Extremely Large Telescope (EELT), a next generation telescope that is currently under construction in Chile. The EELT is considerably larger then TMT (TMT is 30 m in size and the EELT is 39 m). According to TMT’s own analysis, the no build alternative will cause less environmental and cultural damage than building it on the sacred mountain landscape and fragile ecosystem of Mauna Kea.

It is time to Aloha Mauna Kea, Mr. Moore.


Kealoha Pisciotta, Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, Kumu Paul K. Neves, Deborah J. Ward, Kalani Flores and Pua Case, the Flores Case Ohana, Clarence Kukauahi Ching and KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance

see Intel founder, land board asked to stop new Mauna Kea observatory

The environmental impact statement is here Land Use - section on the Thirty Meter Telescope


In that open letter they talk about aloha. Here is more about it, the peaceful approach that the Hawaiian protests on Mauna Kea exemplify:

"The spirit of Aloha was an important lesson taught to the children of the past because it was about the world of which they were a part. One early teaching goes like this:

"Aloha is being a part of all, and all being a part of me. When there is pain - it is my pain. When there is joy - it is also mine. I respect all that is as part of the Creator and part of me. I will not willfully harm anyone or anything. When food is needed I will take only my need and explain why it is being taken. The earth, the sky, the sea are mine to care for, to cherish and to protect. This is Hawaiian - this is Aloha!"

See also "The Meaning of Aloha"

This originated as my answer to the Quora question: 

What does the rest of the world think about the controversy over the TMT (thirty meter telescope) in Hawaii?


And you might like my other posts on Quora

Robert Walker's posts - on Quora

And on Science20

Robert Walker's posts on Science20


And I have many other booklets on my kindle bookshelf

My kindle books author's page on amazon