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Thirty Meter Telescope

The Project Manager's Corner: Looking Up
Gary Sanders, TMT Project Manager

February 2006

I kicked off this monthly column last month by looking back at how this project came to its current state. I promised to tell you something of interest each month from now on about TMT and its progress. Before I transition from looking back to looking forward, I’d like to look up. Let me explain.

This past month, several TMT Board members and I began a series of visits to Chile, Hawaii and Mexico to set into motion the discussions and processes leading to selection of the site for TMT. Three weeks ago we were in Chile for meetings in Santiago and in the northern region where our candidate sites are located (see My Summer Vacation In February for my account of a visit to these mountains last year). Two weeks ago we journeyed to Honolulu for meetings with Hawaii state government officials, educators and economic development leaders, and to the Big Island for meetings with local educators, government officials, business leaders and representatives of native Hawaiian groups. As I type this, I am 30 minutes away from my first meeting with a leader in Mexico. In a later column I will recount the process that we intend to follow to involve local communities in this process to compete the six candidate sites.

Right now I want to step back and look up and think about what TMT and telescopes mean to humans and how TMT has real meaning for the people local to possible sites. I want to depart from the cadence of the project and think of the drum beat of the project.

We have always looked up. The earliest humans looked and wondered. What are those twinkling lights? Is that the light that makes us see? Does the heat that warms us come from fire up there? Is it a message? In our animism are we seeing a communication? A sign of order in our world? Or disorder or anger or approval or guidance or imminent calamity? Is that our world? Do we come from there? Does our substance come from there? Is there a daily or nightly or annual drama played out? What is that unusual burst? A sign of something?

The stars and the sky have always been a focus for this wonder. Places with the most dramatic and intimate gaze of the heavens have been special. Mountain tops. High and above the world below. Open and airy and with a sense of release and abyss. An open gulf to the stars and an open view for our wondering. Special places. Our wonder and our animism have led us to imagine that we are seeing gods and spirits, answers to our questions.

Our animism. Realize that mountain tops have been a special place as we humans have traveled with our wondering through animism to polytheism and then to monotheism and to science and then back again. It is in our heart and our mind. We strive to understand. We journey to mountain tops for a message. Remember that in the Judeo-Christian bible, the Ten Commandments are delivered from a mountain top, marking the ascendance of one of the world’s widespread monotheisms as it broke from polytheism. One God. No graven images.

Moses and Mount Sinai. Mohammed beckoning Mount Safa. Lord Vishnu as a tortoise supporting the sinking mountain.

The Birth of Hawai’i:

“For many months Pele followed a star from the northeast, which shown brighter than the rest, and migrated toward it. One morning, Pele awoke to the smell of something familiar in the air. In the distance could be seen a high mountain with a smoky haze hiding its peak. Pele knew she had found her new home. She named the island Hawai’i. …”

And in gaining permission to test the atmospheric conditions above Cerro Tolonchar in northern Chile, our TMT team experienced a great honor in participating in a ritual del pago together with local residents and before disturbing the mountain and placing our equipment to begin our studies.

Bob Blum, of the AURA/TMT team wrote:

“At the summit, after some general site seeing which all seemed to enjoy very much, preparations were made for the ceremony. This was led by the most elder of the community of Peine in attendance, Don Oracio Morales. Sr. Oracio has apparently worked all over the region, principally in various mining operations. He explained that not anyone could perform this type of ceremony. He himself, knew he had the ability when he was 18 years old. He explained that the ceremony consists of three distinct parts, though it was not clear to the author just what the distinctions were. After consultation with Ulises Cardenas, the first two and most obvious are the pago itself (making ritual giving to the pachamama) and the ceremony of giving thanks which all were allowed an opportunity for. The third aspect remains unclear. The ceremony is a wonderful mixture of native Atacamenian religion and Roman Catholicism. Don Oracio wore beads and crucifix, but spoke as well of animal sacrifice. If this had been a ceremony for a mine operation, the latter would have been required. This is because the mine seeks to take something valuable from the land and this must be compensated with something of appropriate value. As an aside, it was explained by Cardenas that the exact rituals used vary from community to community, each having its own priorities and emphasis.

“The rituals and ceremony were begun by Sra. Sara Plaza, the presidenta of Peine who has worked with the AURA/TMT group to make the operation on Tolonchar a success. Sra. Sara, as all seem to know her, welcomed everyone (and us by name first of all), and then to our unexpected but happy surprise, spoke first of the desire for the project to be a complete and great success. This theme was echoed throughout the day by many other speakers such that in the end, we were left with a very positive feeling about the relation between AURA/TMT and the two local groups. Each person present was allowed to give thanks and make an offering to the pachamama. The AURA group , including Alica Norambuena who spoke eloquently of the solid foundation this new relationship between the indigenous and scientific communities had been built on, each made offering and gave words of thanks. Enrique Figueroa spoke of the honor he felt for having been invited to participate in such an important gathering. Each speaker repeated (approximately) the ritual offering shown by Don Oracio, which involved placing a small quantity of hojas de coca (coca leaves) on a fire, then pouring red wine in small amounts at the points of a crucifix around the fire, sprinkling wine by hand on the nearby rocks, and finally sipping a mouthful of wine in the manner of a toast to all present. While serious, the ceremony still included many comments of a humorous or light nature and the assembled group appeared to be enjoying themselves very much.

“The events concluded with the ritual del pago which was completed by Don Oracio. This included various words and the spraying or throwing of a beverage called Chupilca, which is made from red wine and toasted wheat among (possibly) other things. Once completed, everyone retired to the buses, where a light snack was distributed. Snacks in hand, the buses were loaded and pointed downhill. The ceremony took place in the northwest corner of the summit along side the apacheta, which can be seen from a great distance below. The apacheta and the area around it are of high significance to the Peine and Socaire communities, especially following the events of today, and the project must avoid disturbing anything in the immediate vicinity.”

When I drive on the 210 Freeway to Pasadena on a rare clear day, I can see the Mount Wilson observatory. Home of the world’s largest telescope for decades, before Palomar arrived in 1948. When I have visited and viewed the venerable telescope, I have imagined Edwin Hubble himself seated high up in the hickory chair, clad in tweed wool in bracing midnight mountain air, peering through the focus to see the Universe rushing away. His vision of red-shifted light takes shape as an exploding world, the Big Bang, my creation myth. Yes, this is science, and we wonder with different rules. But in the moment that Hubble sensed a rushing universe, the mythic beginning was forming in the mind of a human. I feel a sense of reverence when I visit that telescope.

As I drive the road along the Kohala coast of the Big Island, Hawai’i, I can see the domes and enclosures high atop the summit ridge of Mauna Kea. Tiny little “pimples” glimmer against the sacred mountain top. I imagine TMT there on the plateau just below the ridge. Another special place in my mind filled with the promise of starlight raining down carrying messages about our wonders. A well-known native Hawaiian, on our recent visit, granted me respect by saying that he knew that we were seeking our God up on Mauna Kea.

These mountains in Hawai’i and Chile and Mexico belong to people who have lived on and around them, and for whom these mountains are special places. If we are to place our giant visions on their mountains, we must meet and respect each other’s wondering and the patterns of our lives and how we are seeking answers and we must find a way to share these special places. Can we look up together and see what we see?

—Gary Sanders

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TMT ambassadors Jean-Rene Roy and Jim Kennedy (Gemini Observatory), Gary Sanders (TMT Project Manager), Rolf-Peter Kudritzki (University of Hawaii) and Ray Carlberg (University of Toronto) in Honolulu, HI, on February 1, 2006, to discuss placement of TMT.

The TMT project is a collaboration of Caltech, University of California (UC) and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA). © Thirty Meter Telescope


Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy