by David Thompson
photos by Wayne Levin
A Japanese astronomer on Mauna Kea for the first time asked Gary Fujihara where a good place to make an offering to the mountain might be. Fujihara, then a telescope operator at Mauna Kea’s Japanese national observatory, shrugged and pointed at a random spot out back. The astronomer poured the entire contents of an expensive bottle of sake there and got cloudy weather that night. Undeterred, he made an offering the next evening at a nearby weather tower. That night, with clear skies, he discovered a supernova. From then on, whenever the astronomer peered into deep space from Hawai‘i, he never failed to make a sake offering at the weather tower first.
Gary Fujihara at
Mauna Kea's summit.
Fujihara tells this story from behind the wheel of an old University of Hawai‘i Chevy Suburban as it rattles up the steep unpaved road leading to Mauna Kea’s summit. He’s no longer a telescope operator, but his job as the science education and public outreach officer for the UH Institute for Astronomy still brings him up here. Today he’s leading a small group tour.
Fujihara, a trim forty-six-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair and those photochromic glasses that darken themselves outdoors, is a great person to tour Mauna Kea with. For one thing, he’s got lots of funny stories from his telescope operator days. Like the one about the Orange Woman he met. Her hair was orange, her skin was orange, her clothes were orange. All of her, bright orange. Fujihara was baffled until she explained that she had driven to the summit with a large bag of Cheetos in her vehicle. At 13,796 feet, Mauna Kea’s summit is forty percent of the way to space. The air there is considerably thinner than it is inside a bag of Cheetos. When the pressure inside the bag became too great, "not only did the bag explode," Fujihara recalls, "but a fine cheese dust adhered itself to every square inch of her car’s interior, herself included."
He doesn’t belabor the points of his funny stories, but all of his funny stories have points. Like, that even scientists can be superstitious. Or that there’s an inverse relationship between the pressure and the volume of a gas, such as the air inside a bag of Cheetos.
Fujihara is tour guide today for a Kona family who bought the trip at a fundraiser for a Big Island non-profit that helps battered women. He has done a bunch of charitable tours like this, as well as tours for student groups. Ordinarily, though, he doesn’t bring people to the mountain. He brings science from the mountain to the people. He’s often in schools, sharing his passion for the cosmos with kids and sharing his knowledge about free educational resources with teachers. He frequently appears at career days, school fairs and anywhere else he can set up an information booth, show off his Mars Rover models and let you handle his chunk of hematite, which is a mineral that usually forms in the presence of water, and which is just like the hematite the real rovers found on Mars.
When there’s an eclipse, an exceptionally dramatic solar storm, or even a really good meteor shower, chances are Fujihara will be at some good public viewing location, eager to talk astronomy. When Venus crossed the face of the sun last June, you couldn’t see it from Hawai‘i, unless you happened to be in front of Sears at the Prince Kuhio Plaza in Hilo, where Fujihara displayed live images from web cams in Europe, the Canary Islands and Africa that were trained on the rare celestial event. He also organizes a free lecture series that brings renowned space scientists to the Big Island, such as comet hunter David Levy, who discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy, the one that smashed into Jupiter in 1994. And Fujihara organizes the annual astronomical outreach extravaganza known as AstroDay, which puts space educators and astronomers from all thirteen Mauna Kea observatories in the paths of thousands of shoppers at the mall in Hilo each spring. (AstroDay happens this year at Prince Kuhio Plaza on April 16.)