By Richard Easther

The advent of the web and social media have led to a huge outpouring of enthusiasm for science but almost all sciences have skeletons in their closet, some real and some imaginary. Physicists gave us the bomb, chemists cook up the chemicals they put in the food (yes, yes, and you cheerfully drink H-2-O and breathe O-2) and even if medical researchers have doubled our lifespan many will claim they are in thrall to Big Pharma and specialise in diseases of the rich, in addition to perpetrating more specific and chilling abuses. But astronomers often sail past earthly concerns. After all, what’s not to like? Astronomy generates an endless stream of stories about strange planets, unlikely stars, and the birth of the universe, but nothing anyone can easily get upset about.

Even journalists suspend their usual rules for astronomy and other good-news science stories. Copy approval, sending sources a draft of an article for commentary and correction, is anathema to journalists on a hard news story, but I am often sent drafts “to check the details” when I talk to the media about astronomy. So perhaps this is why astronomers have been caught flat-footed by the apparently sudden eruption of protest around the Thirty Metre Telescope, or TMT. The issue is not the $1.3 billion price tag but its location at the summit of Mauna Kea, the highest peak on Hawai`i’s Big Island. The problem is that while Mauna Kea is a fantastic place for astronomy (a huge mountain rising out of the Pacific Ocean; the skies above it are stable and clear) it is also sacred to many native Hawai`ians. The issues are far from straightforward, but Buzzfeed (in its new incarnation as a purveyor of long-form news) and the Huffington Post have summaries of recent events and TMT consortium has put its own response to the controversy online. However, for some astronomers it has led to the discovery that they may not always be the good guys.

While we might wish it were otherwise, astronomy is not apolitical. Science communicators (myself included) wax eloquent about space exploration, but the space race was launched by Cold War competition. Nor is the politicisation of astronomy new. The British navigator, James Cook, set sail in the Endeavour from Plymouth in 1768 to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti, as part of a campaign to determine the overall scale of the solar system. Cook carried additional sealed orders to be opened after the transit observations were complete, which told him to continue from Tahiti on a voyage of discovery into the Pacific; part of the larger competition between European powers to explore trade-routes and acquire outposts around the world. (By many accounts, the contents of those orders were well-known around London before he sailed.) And like a modern-day space programme, Cook’s voyages were a simultaneous national investment in pure science, prestige and geopolitical leverage. [And Cook and Hawaii are tightly connected – he commanded the first European ships to make landfall in Hawai’i, and was killed in a skirmish there in 1778.]

New Zealand and Hawai`i are both parts of the Polynesian world. As a New Zealander, much of the language used by the Mauna Kea protestors is familiar…READ MORE