Monday, March 24, 2014

Mauna Kea: One Word or Two?

The local newspaper, the Hawaii Tribune Herald, ran an article back on February 13 talking about a recent meeting by the Mauna Kea Management Board (MKMB). The article spent most of its time talking about the progress of the Thirty Meter Telescope, which was interesting enough, but what I found really fascinating was buried in the last sentence relating some of the other proceedings of the meeting. I've reproduced the sentence in question below and underlined the part I found so arresting:
“The MKMB also discussed the installation of a photovoltaic system at the Hale Pohaku Mid-Level Astronomy Facilities, its volunteer efforts, and the decision to change the spelling of Mauna Kea to one word instead of two.”
I find that a surprising topic of discussion for two reasons. Linguistically, “Maunakea” isn't really more or less valid than “Mauna Kea.” In Hawaiian “mauna” means “mountain” and “kea” means “white,” and “mauna kea” translates really well into English as “white mountain.” Of course, by this point it's become a proper name, and just as “Whitemountain” would be a perfectly valid (if a little odd) name in English, “Maunakea” would be a valid name in Hawaiian (and there are a lot of precedents for names in Hawaiian made up of multiple words being written as one, which is where the occasional name longer than twenty letters comes from). This form of name is actually somewhat common in European languages: the name “Montenegro” (the country in south-east Europe) means simply “Black Mountain.” The early Baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi's last name I believe means “green mountain.” And there are cities in both France and Spain with the name Montblanc, which I think would translate to “white mountain.” I suspect such things probably also appear in other languages that I don't know around the world.

So this isn't quite as frivolous at it might as first appear, but it's at best neutral. Those other names have been long standardized in the form they appear, but just so “Mauna Kea” has been standard for quite a while. Which brings me to my second point: practically, Mauna Kea has been spelled that way for a long time now. Even if you could make a compelling case, linguistically, for spelling it as one word (which I don't think you can, although I do admit I'm not an expert in Hawaiian), the fact of the matter is that there's a lot of printed material out there calling it Mauna Kea. This should give serious pause to any consideration of name-changing, no matter what. It's just strange to me that the subject was even brought up for discussion.

To be fair, there isn't any indication in the article about what was actually decided in the matter or even how much time they spent discussing it. I haven't heard anything official since, but if I do I'll be sure to report on it. Until next time, a hui hou!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Journey through the Universe

This past week I participated, for the first time, in the annual Journey through the Universe science outreach program, which is where scientists of every stripe volunteer to go into classrooms around Hilo (and nine other places throughout the nation) and try to inspire kids with science.

This is the tenth anniversary of the program, and living in Hilo for the past several years I was vaguely aware of its presence, but this is the first time I participated. Each presenter is given a choice as to how they want to participate: what days they're free, what grades they're interested in speaking to, etc. These are then coordinated by Gemini Observatory with the various schools to match people to what they selected.

I elected for younger children and ended up with five classes of 2nd-graders to visit. For my subject I decided to talk about the scale of outer space (a topic that I greatly enjoy and find very mind-stimulating), and specifically the scale of our solar system (a subject a little more familiar at that age). For that I used a simple model, put together in the following manner.

When measuring distances in the solar system, astronomer often find it convenient to use the Astronomical Unit, or AU. This actually has a very specific definition, but for all intents and purposes it can be thought of as the average distance between the earth and the sun. Earth, by definition, is 1 AU from the sun; Mercury and Venus are less than a single AU from the sun, while the other planets are more than 1 AU, all the way out to Neptune at an average distance of 30 AU.

For the model I used, I equated one sheet of letter paper to one AU, then taped 30 sheets of paper together to represent the distance out to Neptune. I then stuck pictures of the planets at the appropriate distances along the model (sizes not to scale, but at that scale they'd have been invisible). For the pictures I printed out a bunch of black-and-white pictures of the planets meant to be colored in and had the kids do the coloring (saving me work, and giving them something to do to fill up time and keep their attention. It turned out to be much more popular than I had expected).

After the first two runs where I ironed out a few bugs, it went quite well for the remaining three classes. It was a bit nerve-wracking, I must admit. I've been public speaking for over ten years, and giving a talk in front of an attentive audience doesn't faze me, whether it's a prepared talk or extemporaneous. But it's a little harder to maintain composure and flow when the audience is quite comfortable with expressing its own opinions or interjecting its own comments from time to time. Apparently I was interesting enough that they were too absorbed to interrupt most of the time, and I always ended with ten to fifteen minutes of question-and-answer, so that probably helped. It was really gratifying to see the majority of the kids asking questions rather than just a few.

Overall it was a very interesting experience. A little nerve-wracking and a little stressful beforehand, but quite exhilarating to see the looks on kids' faces when they realized that Neptune is really, really, far out there. I got some very nice comments from the teachers of the various classes and the kids seemed to really enjoy it as well. I don't know if I'll do it again, but I'm certainly glad I got the chance to do it this time.

(If anyone wants to make their own solar system model, the average distances to the planet in AU are 0.4, 0.7, 1, 1.5, 5.2, 9.5, 19.2, and 30 for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, respectively.)