HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran
Far-Seeing From Here – Part II – Imiloa, the Healing Force
Besides the summit of Mauna Kea, there are few places on earth where you can see so many stars so clearly. You’re on top of nearly every cloud, nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, and there’s essentially no smog or air pollution at that altitude. Vog from Kilauea doesn’t blow that way, either: it would first have to climb up and over Mauna Loa, which is very nearly as tall as Mauna Kea, and vog gasses are heavier than air.
There’s no “light pollution” here either: as a courtesy to the astronomical observatories, all the streetlights on the Big Island are a dull yellow color that doesn’t register on their telescopes. In fact, hardly any of them are looking for visible light. Most are searching the sky in other “wavelengths,” including infrared radiation (which is invisible but which we notice, mainly, as “heat”), and the even longer wavelength known as “sub-millimeter.” One of the telescopes – the Keck – is actually two telescopes in one, that act like binoculars, and hence give a more three-dimensional image.
Mauna Kea has been an enormously attractive platform for viewing the heavens. But that does not mean that astronomy has been popular here. Several groups of native Hawaiians and environmental activists have, for years, vigorously protested plans to construct yet another observatory – one which will contain the world’s largest mirror, thirty meters across. (Technically, it’s a cluster of small mirrors, each computer-controlled, that produce an image equivalent to what would be seen if it were one big chunk of glass ground into a parabolic mirror – but such a mirror would be impossible to transport up, and is probably impossible to fabricate, anyway).
The University of Hawaii has never been able to deflect objections to new observatories [see previous blog post], but the UH Institute for Astronomy has recently helped to cultivate a generation of children and young adults who are intrigued by astronomy. The reason is . . . Imiloa.
It means “far-seeing,” and it’s a hands-on science museum, located just mauka of the UH-Hilo campus, and centered on the science of astronomy. It houses the only planetarium on the island, and the only 3D projection system as well. Current shows include two that were locally produced: “Awesome Light 2,” which shows distant galaxies that the infrared and sub-millimeter telescopes have explored; and “3D Sun,” with three-dimensional images of solar flares taken from special satellites. The planetarium also draws in new audiences by showing 3D light-shows with rock music.
But if that were all, Imiloa would not be so popular.
The decision was made, in the planning process, to truly honor the Hawaiians’ cosmology and constellations, and to highlight the Polynesians’ remarkable skill in transoceanic navigation, which was accomplished in the main by a knowledge of the stars. These exhibits stand right alongside those about black holes, radio astronomy, globular star-clusters and space travel . . . with equal weight given to all. Moreover, like a museum in another country (and hence with a nod to the Hawaiian sovereignty movement), the exhibits are labeled in Hawaiian as well as English.
There has never before been anything like Imiloa in Hawaii. And if there is a criticism to be made it is simply that somebody should have thought of doing something like this a long time ago!