Issue 8.2: April/May 2005

Star Struck

by David Thompson
photos by Wayne Levin

Gary Fujihara at
Mauna Kea's summit.

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.

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.)

Fujihara was slowly working on his computer science degree at UH Hilo and writing software for a living when he landed a job in 1999 with the newly built Subaru Telescope, Japan’s national observatory. For the four years he sat at the enormous instrument’s computer controls, he lived on the mountain—one week on, one week off—becoming part of the tightly knit community of researchers and support staff who also work there. He seems to be on a first-name basis with everyone, from the visiting astronomers who come for a few nights of precious telescope time to the cooks and housekeepers who keep things running in the alpine-lodge-like dorms at 9,300 feet. "It’s one big happy family," he says. "One crazy, dysfunctional, happy family."

As much as he bonded with the astronomy community there, he also bonded with the place itself. When our tour group takes a half-hour at the Visitor Information Station near the dorms to get acclimated to the altitude, Fujihara slips off to a nearby modern Hawaiian shrine. Later he tells me that he does that when he comes here "to seek guidance and permission to go to the summit safely." As we approach the summit—which in Hawaiian theology is the realm of the gods—Fujihara’s funny stories stop, his voice drops, and he says, "I ask that you have reverence, not litter and have pure thoughts."

Cultural matters are sensitive business around Mauna Kea. Native Hawaiians have accused astronomers of desecrating the sacred mountain. Environmentalists have been critical, too. The criticisms have thrown plans to build new telescopes on Mauna Kea into question. They’ve also inspired scientists to reconsider how they do things on the mountain and to work harder at sharing what they are doing with the public.

Fujihara is quick to acknowledge that a chasm of misunderstanding has existed between the scientific community and the broader community. Scientists haven’t always appreciated the cultural significance of the mountain, and non-scientists have been pretty much in the dark about the enormous leaps in human knowledge taking place there. But the conflicts on the mountain, he insists, aren’t irreconcilable.

"There’s a delicate balance between pursuing science and respecting culture," Fujihara says. "I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive as long as there’s understanding."

While politics may have inspired the astronomical community to take public outreach more seriously, Fujihara is clearly motivated by something more noble: his internal drive to share the wonders of the universe with people. You know this is true because he’s been doing it on his own time since well before the Institute for Astronomy made him its public outreach person in late 2003. After all, when he was still operating a telescope he did launch AstroDay ... just because he wanted to.

Purely on his own initiative, he founded the event in 2002, bringing to the mall space scientists, a portable planetarium, a comet-making kitchen, an Einstein impersonator and all sorts of other fun stuff. AstroDay has grown larger and more elaborate each year (a record 15,000 people attended in 2004). Since the beginning, though, it has included cultural representatives, such as members of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I, to offer a native Hawaiian perspective on Mauna Kea.

A cosmic epiphany inspired Fujihara to create AstroDay. Believe it or not, telescope operators on Mauna Kea rarely step out of their domes to look at the stars with their naked eyes. It’s usually too cold outside. Fujihara worked at Subaru for a year before he ever really looked up. The star-filled sky astounded him. "Whoa!" he thought. "This is why these astronomers are willing to stay up all night, and I have to baby-sit them!"

"After that," he says, "I took to educating myself all I could about astronomy. I learned to love it so much, I thought, ‘Gosh, we’ve got to share this with the people down in Hilo and on the rest of the island. This stuff shouldn’t be locked up here on top of the mountain.’"  HH