The Smithsonian Heads to Hawaii

Coral reefs and radio telescopes make a trip to the tropics more than worthwhile

Smithsonian astronomers detect a planet forming from debris around a young star. David Aguilar / Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

The Smithsonian has rich ties to the Hawaiian Islands, ties that date, in a sense, to before the Smithsonian even existed: The islands were one of the many stops for the U.S. South Seas Exploring Expedition, a venture commanded by Charles Wilkes from 1838 to 1842. Although Wilkes lost two ships and was court-martialed upon his return (partly for mistreatment of his men), the trip was a resounding scientific triumph: The tens of thousands of anthropological and biological samples that Wilkes’ scientists collected officially entered the Smithsonian in 1858, a dozen years after its founding, and they continue to be studied by scholars at our Museum of Natural History, Museum of the American Indian and Asian Pacific American Center, among other sites.

On Labor Day weekend, I visited Hawaii to tour two Smithsonian research centers, see friends of the Institution and solidify connections with leaders of institutional partners, including the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Muse--um, the University of Hawaii and the Pacific Aviation Museum.

I accompanied Smithsonian astronomers on a daunting drive from sea level on Hawaii’s Big Island to the peak of Mauna Kea, site of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Submillimeter Array—a climb of 13,775 feet. The SMA’s eight coordinated radio telescopes can detect radiation at a wavelength between radio frequencies and infrared light, a kind of radiation emitted by the cool dust and debris that surround newborn stars. Looking at a young star about 450 light-years away and roughly the size of our sun, Smithsonian astronomers identified a gap in its surrounding debris; they then confirmed that the gap represented a Jupiter-size planet in the process of consolidation. These astronomers are in the thrilling position of watching the birth of a planetary system that looks to be very much like our own.

Off Oahu, I snorkeled with Mary Hagedorn, of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, who is investigating the mysteries of coral reproduction. Coral, which serves as home to countless species and acts as a natural storm barrier, can reproduce asexually, by breaking off and taking root. But a few nights a year, when the moon is full, coral also release sperm and eggs into the water. In a paper published last March, Hagedorn and collaborators demonstrated that carefully frozen coral sperm could, when thawed, successfully inseminate eggs. The sperm-and-embryo bank she is building may ultimately lead to the replenishment of damaged reefs worldwide. “We want to provide options for the future,” Hagedorn says. Pure discovery—charting little-known Pacific realms, tracking nascent solar systems—has always been one core mission of the Smithsonian. But another is the application of hard-won knowledge to pressing human and environmental concerns, and I saw instances of both pursuits in Hawaii.

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