Claims should be taken with a grain of salt
The recent Tribune-Herald article (Aug. 26) on the virtues of La Palma in the Canary Islands as an alternative to Maunakea for siting the Thirty Meter Telescope brings to mind the similar arguments over siting the Keck Observatory nearly 40 years ago.
In the early 1980s, the National Science Foundation proposed construction of what would be the world’s largest telescope, the New Generation Telescope (NGT). The two obvious candidates for its siting were Arizona, home to the world-leading observatories on Kitt Peak and elsewhere, and Maunakea, then newly discovered as a first-rate telescope site but as yet unappreciated by most astronomers.
The resulting battle between the two states over possession of what promised to be the world’s most prestigious and productive astronomy research facility became a classic confrontation of scientists and politicians that sometimes sank to new lows of of incivility and dishonesty.
The champions of Arizona or California as the chosen site challenged claims by University of Hawaii and other astronomers for the excellence of Maunakea as an observatory site, despite good evidence to that end. Opponents of Maunakea claimed insurmountable difficulties with operating at such a high altitude, including huge operating costs, serious health concerns for astronomers and technicians, and violent weather. It was claimed by some that a hurricane passing over the island would lower atmospheric pressure to the point of asphyxiation of observatory staff. And so on.
Most of this was self-serving nonsense, and cooler heads prevailed after the Keck Foundation contributed funding for the observatory, to be named after W.M. Keck. Astronomers — even some of those from competing states — came to see the evident advantages of siting the telescope at a site of unrivaled excellence.
The performance of the Keck telescopes and those to come after them has amply justified the decision to put the world’s largest telescopes at Maunakea, and technical arguments to put them elsewhere now seem silly (although many were probably well-meant at the time).
The lesson to be taken from this history is that observatory siting claims by astronomers and political leaders with personal interests in the outcome should be taken with a large grain of salt. This is not to say that La Palma is not a good site for TMT — it probably is, if not quite as good as claimed by its proponents — but that any siting decisions should be based on careful and rational analysis by disinterested experts and not, if you’ll pardon my saying so, by newspaper writers and the experts they choose to interview.
Let the TMT people make that decision; they’re the ones with money in the game. The associated political and cultural issues, like that have arisen with TMT siting in recent years, are another issue altogether.