How an Incredible Astronomical Discovery Received Its Hawaiian Name

Larry Kimura
Images by Dino Morrow

Inspired by a creation chant and an image of the once unseeable, astronomers and a Hawaiian language expert named one of history’s most captivating discoveries.

On a balmy morning in March 2019, three scientists, two Hawaiian cultural experts, and a communications consultant sat around a conference table. Moments before, two of the scientists had sworn the rest to secrecy. The information they were about to discuss was strictly confidential, “under heavy media embargo and guarded like Fort Knox,” as Doug Simons, one of the scientists and the director of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Maunakea, explained to me months later. The other two scientists, Jessica Dempsey, deputy director of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, and Geoffrey Bower, lead scientist of Academia Sinica Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics’ Hawai‘i operations, were members of the Event Horizon Telescope consortium, a project involving eight telescopes and more than 200 scientists around the globe.

The consortium had found something. Or more accurately, had seen what was once unseeable, Dempsey and Bower told the group. There, at the heart of nearby galaxy Messier 87, was a glowing ring of light descending into the deepest, darkest abyss. The photographs that Dempsey and Bower presented were blurry, but there was no contending what they showed: a black hole.  

“I had a hard time sleeping that first night,” Simons said. It was so bizarre, he recalled, seeing something that no one had seen before. “As an astronomer, I never thought I would live to see such an image.”

In two weeks’ time, these images would be disseminated to media organizations and scientific journals. The news would permeate the globe. An astrophysicist in the Netherlands and member of the consortium would passionately announce at a press conference, “We have seen the gates of hell.” Memes would be made with the historic images, like one equating the black hole with the Eye of Sauron, signifying how much it had captured the public’s attention. It would be heralded as one of the most important discoveries of the decade, if not the century.

Yet on that spring day, as Dempsey and Bower presented the images of the black hole to the shell-shocked group, the world was yet to know of its existence. And, more importantly for the people in that room, the discovery was yet to be named.

On April 10, at exactly 9 a.m. Eastern time, six press conferences across four continents would simultaneously unveil the images. Except, because of its time zone, Hawai‘i was at a disadvantage. “No one was going to come to a press conference at 3 a.m.,” Simons said. As the representatives for the Event Horizon Telescope’s two Hawai‘i-based telescopes, Dempsey and Bower didn’t want their team to get lost in the noise. They needed a media kit unique from the others.

Enter A Hua He Inoa. Directed by Leslie Ka‘iu Kimura, who runs the program under her post as executive director of ʻImiloa Astronomy Center, A Hua He Inoa has become well known among the astronomical community, having named celestial objects with the assistance of Larry Kimura, a Hawaiian language professor and pioneer of the language’s revitalization (and Leslie’s uncle).

Two years prior, the program and its concept of modern-day Hawaiian celestial nomenclature was just an abstract idea conceived by John De Fries, a Hawaiian entrepreneur. In March 2017, he sent a memo to Kahu Kū Mauna, a cultural advisory group for the Maunakea Management Board. Familiar with the group’s influence, he proposed a novel concept: to bestow every discovery made on Maunakea with a Hawaiian name. Prior to that, discoveries were only labelled with a system of acronyms and numerical codes. Except for those of key astronomical objects, names were little more than coordinates.

The memo made waves in the astronomy scene and arrived on Simons’ desk at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on recommendation from some members of Kahu Kū Mauna. Intrigued, he reached out to De Fries. Yet other members of the observatory community were skeptical, unsure of the concept’s viability and how the astronomical society would react.

Then, on October 2017, Haleakalā’s network of telescopes, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, detected an interstellar object hurtling past the sun. It was the first time that an object from another solar system was observed passing through ours. In the months after its publication, the discovery was linked to everything from the formation of solar systems to proof of extraterrestrial life.

Pan-STARRS astronomer Richard Wainscoat phoned Simons, asking for permission to use the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope for further observations. As Wainscoat described the significance of the observation, Simons’ thoughts turned to De Fries’ memo. “That’s when it clicked,” he said. “This was the big astronomical discovery that John and I had been waiting for.”

Proving its potential through a high-profile discovery would “give it a shot of confidence,” Simons said. He phoned Kaʻiu Kimura, a long-time colleague who he knew could connect him to Larry Kimura. The language professor, having helped perpetuate the Hawaiian language’s renaissance in the 1980s by founding one of the first Hawaiian language immersion schools, was the only person who could credibly name the discovery, according to Simons.

Larry was alerted and given 72 hours to come up with a name. They only had one chance to do so. The Pan-STARRS research team was wrapping up a paper that would announce the discovery in the science journal Nature, with or without a Hawaiian name. Once a discovery was made public, Simons said, “there would be no reeling it back.”

Larry didn’t need 72 hours. The name was ‘Oumuamua, meaning a scout or a warrior sent ahead of the pack to discern the strength of the opposing force. “It was coming from someplace sort of mysteriously, from another realm, so to speak,” Larry said. The salient characteristics that made it a unique and scientifically important discovery served as Larry’s inspiration. “It was checking us out in a way,” he said. “That would be something like a spy, like a scout.”

Though it was an interesting project, Larry didn’t anticipate that the name would leave the scientific community. But upon its unveiling, the Hawaiian word was everywhere: splashed across global headlines and on newscasts, albeit often mispronounced. Soon after, it was approved by the International Astronomical Union, the official designating body for celestial objects, making ‘Oumuamua the official distinction. The magnitude of the name’s reach—having “gone viral,” as Simons described—proved A Hua He Inoa’s potential.

Yet, upon the name’s publication, some Native Hawaiians disagreed with this use of their language, especially amid continued tensions surrounding the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea. For activist and Ph.D. student Iwakelii Tong, bestowing discoveries made on Maunakea and Haleakalā with Hawaiian names felt like “fabricating consent from Native Hawaiians,” he said. By aligning Hawaiian language and culture with their observatories, which have been a source of frustration for some Hawaiians for decades, it was as if these organizations “were sweeping everything under the rug,” according to Tong, rather than directly addressing issues brought up by activists like him.

For members of A Hua He Inoa, however, the Hawaiian language’s presence in the scientific sphere was progress. It was a step forward for a language that three decades ago was on the edge of extinction. 

“There were stories from my mother about not being able to speak Hawaiian at school,” De Fries said, “not even in Kamehameha Schools,” an institution founded by Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop for Native Hawaiian children. Federal policies banned Hawaiian in schools. Native speakers stopped speaking to their children in Hawaiian. Use waned to elders and the island of Niʻihau. By 1984, there were only 32 speakers under the age of 18.

That same year, Pūnana Leo, a Hawaiian immersion school Larry founded with a group of ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i experts, opened its doors. The school and its Hawaiian mode of instruction became a part of a movement to restore the language by instilling it in the next generation. In the years since, the use of the language spread, revitalized by immersion schools and a larger Hawaiian renaissance. By 2016, Hawaiian speakers numbered more than 18,000.

De Fries cites ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i’s near extinction as partially having inspiring his concept for A Hua He Inoa decades later. Larry also sees A Hua He Inoa as an extension of this revitalization. When he saw the coverage that ‘Oumuamua attracted, he said, “I realized the opportunity we had to pick up where we left off.” Preserving the Hawaiian language is crucial to preserving Hawaiian culture. “Every language has a different perspective of living through this world,” and holding on to one’s native language, Larry said, “is crucial in preserving who we are as Hawaiians.”

Learning from ‘Oumuamua’s success, Dempsey and Bower invited Ka‘iu and Larry to join the black hole’s media team. Larry knew the name would involve pō, the “profound dark source of unending creation” as described in the Kumulipo. “But there were many types of pō, of darkness,” Larry said, estimating that pō was mentioned over a hundred times in the Kumulipo. “Which one would this be?” Dempsey described the image’s basic anatomy to Larry. “Ah, then I knew,” he said.

That orange halo amid the darkness reminded Larry of “wehiwehi,” meaning “honored with embellishments.” Within the Kumulipo, one such pō was described to be adorned, as if wearing a crown. As far as Larry understood it, the black hole could only be named “Pōwehi,” the pō he had learned about in the Kumulipo.

Though the other telescopes were notified, it was slightly too late. Unlike with ‘Oumuamua, the black hole’s discovery papers were already in the final proofing stage. “Sometimes timing really is everything,” Simons said. All the Hawai‘i team could do was disseminate their press kit to as many media organizations as possible and hope that the name would catch.

The day had come. At the strike of 10 a.m., every major news organization in the world released the images. As expected, the joint press conference captured worldwide attention. And there, among the headlines, was a name. The black hole was everywhere, and everywhere, it was being called Pōwehi.

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