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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 10, 2003

Study of stars leaves Hawaiian at odds

 •  Science, culture clash over Mauna Kea expansion

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

As the only Hawaiian astronomer who studies the stars from Mauna Kea, Paul Coleman jokes he is in just the right spot to get everyone mad at him.

"Part of the problem has to be blamed on Hawaiians as well because we weren't active back when this big push happened" to develop the summit, Paul Coleman said.

Kevin Dayton • The Honolulu Advertiser

At a time when Big Island astronomers are searching for common ground with Hawaiians who oppose new development on Mauna Kea, Coleman straddles both camps.

A graduate of Saint Louis High School, Coleman assumed he was leaving Hawai'i for good when he went off to college to study physics. But he found a way back after an adviser at the University of Pittsburgh suggested he set aside his interest in general relativity theory because there was little money available for research and instead move into astronomy.

With the University of Hawai'i Institute for Astronomy adding telescopes on Mauna Kea in the mid-1980s, "it became a possible place to come home to," said Coleman, 47.

But as he sat through long and sometimes angry public testimony last year on the proposed W.M. Keck Observatory's outrigger telescopes project, Coleman said he began to wonder why he had returned. He was amazed at how much the plan and the people behind it were mistrusted, and said he sees errors on both sides.

Astronomers are partly to blame for pushing through new plans to develop the mountain without properly consulting the community, he said.

Coleman said those scientists have been brought up with "the old ivory tower science — basically I do my science and that's it. I don't have to explain it to you or ask your permission to trample your plants or build my telescopes.

"Part of the problem has to be blamed on Hawaiians as well because we weren't active back when this big push happened" to develop the summit, he said. "We were rediscovering ourselves. We weren't vocal back then. If we'd been vocal back then, maybe it would have worked out."

Coleman, who is married with two children, said the mountain does not have the deep spiritual significance for his family that it does for some Hawaiians, but he still feels a tie to his ancestors when he is there. He recalls gasping for air during a climb he made from about the 9,000-foot level to the summit, which is at about 13,000 feet.

"It just brought home to me how hard it was, what a pure physical struggle it was for ancient Hawaiians to be up there in the first place, and why they consider it to be such a sacred place, because it's just so otherworldly," he said.

He said Hawaiians should take advantage of opportunities offered by the companies and institutions that study space.

"Get the best you can out of it. Get scholarships for Hawaiian kids, get faculty chairs for Hawaiian professors, that kind of thing, and I think a lot of these astronomy organizations are really willing to do that kind of thing," he said.

"I also have my own agenda. I would like to have 10 more astronomers like me 10 years from now or a much stronger component of natives on the mountain in whatever aspect, whether as engineers or astronomers."