Pursuing knowledge: W.M. Keck Observatory’s director offers a glimpse of the universe from Mauna Kea

  • Hilton Lewis shares images from the Keck telescope at WCA’s monthly meeting at W.M. Keck Observatory on Dec. 1. Current projects include tracking stars orbiting the black hole, seeking habitable planets, and those orbiting a star outside the solar system. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    Hilton Lewis shares images from the Keck telescope at WCA’s monthly meeting at W.M. Keck Observatory on Dec. 1. Current projects include tracking stars orbiting the black hole, seeking habitable planets, and those orbiting a star outside the solar system. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)

WAIMEA — “Why do we ‘do’ astronomy?,” Hilton Lewis asked Waimea Community Association attendees while speaking at last week’s December monthly meeting.

As director of the W.M. Keck Observatory, he said he believes it is humanity’s spirit of adventure, much like the inspiration that fueled the Polynesian voyagers.

After an imaginary trek up Mauna Kea with audience members pretending to be astronomers, Lewis welcomed them to “the Sistine Chapel of Astronomy, Mauna Kea,” a phrase coined by Bob Moskitis, the first summit facilities coordinator beginning in 1997, who also ran fishing boats and Formula One racing teams.

A 30-year Keck veteran, Lewis said, “The sheer physical beauty of Mauna Kea takes my breath away every single time; it is one of the most beautiful and sacred places on the planet. It is a spiritual experience, as much as a science and engineering experience.”

Relying on optical infrared astronomy to filter out light pollution from monochromatic sodium and LED lights, the darkness of Mauna Kea is critical to the telescopes’ ability to see billions of stars, he explained. The mountain also has a stable atmosphere, aided by technology’s adaptive optics, which further reduces atmospheric turbulence. The sky is very clear on the summit compared with many other places on the planet. Even the volcanoes on the Big Island cooperate with scientific efforts with their low gas content of magma, Lewis added.

Keck’s segmented mirrors, invented in the 1970s by physicist Jerry Nelson and used to feed images into the Keck telescope, are finely controlled by as tiny a measurement as 1/4,000th of a human hair. With this technology, scientists can see billions of stars compared with only 5,000 stars humans can see with just their eyes.

With brain-tickling slides and details, Lewis highlighted several research projects underway, including tracking stars orbiting the black hole in the center of the galaxy, looking for habitable planets in the search for other life, and their quest to find exoplanets — planets that orbit a star outside the solar system.

Recently, scientists using Keck telescopes determined the farthest galaxy humans have ever detected, named EGSY8p7.

Keck Observatory takes its stewardship seriously, evidenced by the cultural/environmental training by Office of Mauna Kea Management (OMKM) provided to all Keck staff, water conservation and a a successful track record avoiding environmental pollution. Keck has a strict driving policy, obtains permission from OMKM for any changes to building exteriors, and provides a visitor gallery with the only public restrooms at the summit.

A 2012 University of Hawaii (UH) study showed that astronomy provided 1,400 jobs in the state, paying $167 million in wages and salaries. From that, $91 million of those salaries went for 800 jobs on the Big Island. The UH has the most access to the telescopes and refers to the Keck Observatory as “our state treasure” — putting UH on the map, according to some.

Focusing on humanity’s common curiosity about where we come from, Lewis reminded the audience about the first known humans standing on the Savannah in Africa, looking up and asking, “What is that?”

He believes there is a responsibility to continue the quest for knowledge, whether it be in the sky or in the oceans teaming with life. This responsibility includes inspiring the next generation, and Lewis hopes kids here can appreciate the contribution that astronomy makes to the Big Island.

Putting into context his keen awareness of perceived conflicts about activities on Mauna Kea, he advocated people experiencing Mauna Kea in ways that are appropriate for them, whether it be through cultural practices, as a personally sacred space or by pursuing knowledge — a pursuit he believes is connected with everyone and everything.

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