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Written in the Stars

By: Eunica Escalante

14 March 2019

The call came on a seemingly uneventful Thursday morning in Oct. 2017. But in hindsight, Doug Simons would call that day anything but uneventful.


As the director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) that operates atop Mauna Kea, Simons is used to surprises. His line of work as an astronomer studying the uncharted expanse of deep space, surprises are a daily occurance and are, as such, no longer surprising.


Yet, as he studied the cell-phone ringing in his hand, he could not shake the feeling that this

particular surprise was going to be different.


“First of all, nobody calls,” Simons said, realizing that whoever was on the other end had something monumental to say. “They didn’t want to risk having anything in writing.”


This information was going to be discretionary and not to be leaked to the public, uttered only to discerning ears.


The phone kept ringing.


Anticipation crept up his spine.


Finally, Simons answered.


“Hello?” Simons said after a beat.


On the other line was Richard Wainscoat, an astronomer with the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) on Haleakala and the lead researcher of its Near-Earth Objects program.  


“I need discretionary time for CFHT,” Wainscoat told Simons. “And I need it quick.”


It was for an interstellar asteroid, small (measuring just 3,000 feet at its longest) but passing by Earth at high speeds. And its discovery was historic – the first, and currently only, object from another solar system found passing through ours.


“That’s when it clicked,” Simons said. “This was the big astronomical discovery that John and I had been waiting for.”


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A year earlier, John De Fries, a local businessman and Native Hawaiian advocate, had written a memo to the astronomy community proposing a groundbreaking concept.


He wanted every discovery made on Mauna Kea to be given a Hawaiian name.


It was revolutionary in a field that labelled its findings based on a complex system of abbreviations and numerical codes. At the time, most names were little more than barcodes used for quick identification by a fellow researcher.


For De Fries, the concept was borne out of his own childhood. He witnessed firsthand how his people’s language and culture were slipping from existence. He recalls stories of how his mother was banned from practicing hula and speaking in Hawaiian even inside the halls of Kamehameha Schools, an institution established specifically for Native Hawaiians. But it was 1949, just ten years from Hawai’i’s statehood, and efforts for westernization ran deep.


De Fries’ memo had made waves and, as it circulated the astronomy community, eventually finding its way onto Simons’ desk at CFHT.


“It was about reinvigorating a language,” he said. “It was about reinvigorating a whole culture.”


Upon meeting with De Fries, it was immediately clear to Simons that this venture would go beyond just naming astronomical discoveries.


“Back then, there really was no energy towards keeping our language,” De Fries said. “That was just the sentiment of the times.”


But a few decades later, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a young De Fries witnessed a resurgence in the Native Hawaiian culture, known today as the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance, and a renewed interest towards the language.


Immersion schools like Punana Leo opened their doors to Native Hawaiian students, bringing back school systems that taught and operated solely in Hawaiian.


In 1982, the University of Hawaii established Hawaiinuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, the country’s only college of indigenous knowledge in a Research I school. Through the college, students have a chance to earn a doctorate in a language that just decades before was criminalized.


Despite all its progress, the language revitalization moved at a creeping pace and was limited only to the interests of the Native Hawaiian community.


“Part of the revitalization of a language or any indigenous practice is keeping it relevant,” said De Fries. “And what is more at the forefront than scientific discoveries?”


Having the support of the Mauna Kea observatories, Simons and De Fries set out to form an initiative to realize De Fries’ vision.


“Unbeknownst to us,” said Simons. “Here was this high-speed object hurtling through our solar system.”


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They were given 72 hours to come up with a name. The asteroid’s research team was hammering away at paper that would be submitted to Nature magazine to announce its discovery.


“We really only had one chance to give it a name,” said Simons. “Because once it’s out there, there’s no reeling it back.”


The program to give Mauna Kea discoveries Hawaiian names was still in its infancy –”We hadn’t even formed our committee yet!” said De Fries – but this was an opportunity to show its potential.


Simons immediately called Leslie Ka’iu Kimura, director of ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, and her uncle, Dr. Larry Kimura, co-founder of Hawai’i’s first Hawaiian immersion school, Punana Leo, and internationally renowned as the “grandfather” of Hawaiian language revitalization.


“What Doug explained to us was exciting,” said Leslie Kimura. “We had a novel chance to name one of the biggest discoveries in decades.”


That Saturday evening, Leslie and Dr. Larry Kimura submitted a name to Simons, who passed it on to the research team. The name was peppered throughout the asteroid’s discovery papers and promptly published by Nature magazine.


The next day, ‘Oumuamua was all over international headlines.


“It got tremendous coverage,” Simons said, recalling the frenzy and buzz in those first few days. “It was tremendous international attention.”


Nature magazine reported that the article’s engagement was in the top 5 percentile out of all astronomy related articles.


“It gave us a strong indication of the type of international coverage that naming a scientific discovery could get,” said Simons. “And after that our program’s trajectory shifted into a different, deeper direction.”


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Isaac Pang was in the middle of studying for his midterms when he heard word of a new language initiative with the observatories. He looked up from his papers, all notes from the Hawaiian language courses that he was taking for his Masters in Hawaiian Language and Literature.


“It was interesting, nothing that I had ever really heard of, the scientific community and Hawaiian community coming together like this,” Pang said.


Just a month earlier, a years-long battle over land rights on Mauna Kea had come to a swift close when the State Supreme Court ruled in favor of building the Thirty Meter Telescope, despite efforts to halt the construction by the Native Hawaiian community.


Tensions between the two sides were still high when Pang was invited to join the summit.


“I thought maybe this was a way to build a bridge between the two,” said Pang. “There was still a lot of work to be done in terms of reconciliation but at least this was a step in the right direction.”


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After ‘Oumuamua’s success, Simons and De Fries had forged ahead, motivated by the international attention that the name received. Leslie and Dr. Larry Kimura were brought on board as part of the committee. Faculty members from UH Hilo’s Hawaiian language school and astronomers working on Mauna Kea filled out the rest of the group. Named A Hua He Inoa, the program’s goal was to recreate ‘Oumuamua’s success but with Hawaiian students at the helm.


And, in 2018, a pilot team comprised of Hawaiian college students and high school students from Hawai’i Island and Maui were invited to participate in a three-day summit. The hope was that by the end of those three days, the students would have successfully created names for two celestial discoveries.


The practice of Hawaiian nomenclature is a complex process dating back to Hawai’i’s pre-colonial days. It is not just a simple matter of picking the name from a list of words.


“Names have mana and each one is specific to what it is for,” said Temau Wolff, who, along with Isaac Pang, participated in last year’s summit. “A name captures an individual or an object’s essence. Each thing in the world is alive, so each name has to be alive.”


A name could reveal family lineage or an ancestor’s occupation; illustrate the place and conditions of a child’s birth; even define social distinctions. Names could influence an individual’s character and life trajectory.


Most times, words have to be invented in order to properly name an individual or object. To achieve this requires a mastery of the language and a deep understanding of a word’s origin. Students have to study the genealogies and epics where most words were used for the first time. They then have to translate that knowledge and re-contextualize it to make it relevant to today.


By the end of the summit the students proposed two names to the committee – Kamo’oalewa and Ka’epaoka’alewa – which were then sent to the International Astronomical Union for approval.


Although the approval process could take months, ‘Oumuamua provides a positive outlook for the proposal’s success.


“We’re just waiting at this point,” said Pang. “But we’re pretty hopeful.”


In the meantime, the program was met by widespread approval from the scientific community.

Earlier this year, at the American Astronomical Society’s annual conference, a crowd of over 2,000 attendees listened to Leslie Kimura give the keynote address on A Hua He Inoa. Her speech was met with a standing ovation.


“I don’t know, it just feels great,” said Pang about the public’s positive reaction to the program. “It’s like, finally, our voices are being heard.”

Courtesy of A Hua He Inoa

Students are giving Hawaiian names to astronomical discoveries made on Mauna Kea.

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