LETTER: It’s Just a Matter of Time

September 16, 2019, 11:35 AM HST
* Updated September 16, 11:03 AM
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I’d like to respond to Aaron Stene’s excellent commentary on the TMT controversy. To begin, I’ll stipulate that his facts are right, his conclusions are right, his fears are well-founded, and his intentions are honorable. But…. there is another side to this story, and I’d like to present it. Aaron has presented the financial/business/legal side of the equation. The other side is scientific/psychological/engineering.

Beginning with what I know the least about, the psychological aspect, I decided to visit the Mauna for myself some weeks ago. I had no expectations as a non-islander, in my seventies, on two wheels, with little deep understanding of the history and hurt. Others have written about their experience doing this same thing. I can only add my sense of astonishment, I was not prepared for what I found. Words just don’t work. So, here’s a quick message to Ed Stone, executive director of the TMT corporation;

“If you haven’t already done it, slip into a Groucho Marx disguise and go spend a day on the Mauna. Mingle, talk to the folks and especially observe the children. It will become clear to you that you have lost the issue. This is now a multi-generational thing. It’s over, this is not a Jupiter fly-by, this is a battle of wills and you will lose. Has your Keck experience taught you nothing? You left behind significant pockets of distrust and anger that have regenerated and come back with new powers. Your almost-ten-year efforts to begin construction are considered a success by some, but others ask; Why wouldn’t you take ‘no’ for an answer to begin with? No one argues that losing the TMT would damage our already fragile economy, but can’t you see that ‘imposing’ it would also damage the ‘aloha image’ in the worlds’ eyes. You do the math; a black eye to the 95-98% of our economy or a loss in the, what, <5% of the astronomy niche?”

Engineering is simple; plan it, fund it and build it. No, not so simple. We should realize that this project is almost ten years old already and another ten projected to first light. From an engineering perspective, what could possibly change in twenty years…… except everything?!?! Talk to the folks at the Linear Hadron Collider, at CERN. Some thirty years to first beam, the Higgs discovery and now a plan to increase energies by 100-fold. A new machine. Can the outcomes of climate change, more seismic activity, space telescopes, additional protest pressures be considered as anything other than ‘unknowns’. Professor Avi Loeb, Director of Astronomy at Harvard, in a piece recently carried in the WHT, commented that locating the TMT here vs. the Canary Islands could ‘make little to no difference’ in the quality of data, owing largely to the improved abilities of telescopes to sync their observations and data. Once again, a large part of the engineering decision-making process is not only CAN we do this but SHOULD we do it.

I’ve been fortunate to have been able to have attended almost all of the Keck talks in the last four years. The most recent one was titled “In search of the ultimate ruler: The grand challenge of distances in astronomy.” It was an excellent presentation and highlighted some of the difficulties in measuring out to the edges of the universe. Many are aware that these observations are often time-based, meaning that the ‘accuracy’ of the data traces back to the accuracy of the ‘clock’ as a standard. The current world standard is the Cesium Fountain atomic standard. Ignoring the details, this is stable/accurate to one second in 20 million years. It is the bedrock of all time-based measurements. It was brought online in 1958 (or so) at NIST. In November, last year, new developments were announced (by NIST) of a new class of atomic clocks (crystal lattice oscillators) that have shown increases in ‘accuracy’ on the order of 100 to 10,000-fold. This improvement translates to roughly one second in 150 Billion years. If this holds, and the standard is adopted, everything changes, this especially includes astronomical measurements. (Google: ytterbium crystal lattice clock.) In the past, the typical delay in the adoption of radically new timebases was on the order of ten years, just about the time the TMT would achieve first light.


Talk about cosmic irony!!! Considering that the light from some of these far-distant objects has taken perhaps fifty BILLION years to reach us, a fair question for Mr. Stone might be, “What’s the hurry, Ed?”


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