Last year, Jessica Dempsey, deputy director of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope at Mauna Kea in Hawaii, reached out to Larry Kimura, an associate professor of Hawaiian language and studies at the University of Hawai’i, for help in naming a deep-space detection system. Larry suggested the name “namakanui,” derived from a nocturnal fish with large eyes living in Hawaii. Months later, Larry’s ideas gained more attention when he came up with a name for the first-ever image of a black hole.
A few weeks ago, Dr. Dempsey and other scientists shared the image with Professor Kimura, and he was delighted. He came up with the name “pōwehi,” which comes from an ancient Hawaiian creation chant called the Kumulipo. The name means “the adorned fathomless dark creation” and represents the black hole’s greatness and immeasurable nature. Professor Kimura, who has studied the chant extensively, explained that everything fell into place with this name.
Professor Kimura’s involvement in naming the black hole stemmed from his work with the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and Submillimeter Array on Mauna Kea. These telescopes played a crucial role in capturing the image of the black hole as part of the Event Horizon Telescope project. The name “pōwehi” was also part of an effort to promote the conservation of the Hawaiian language, which is currently endangered.
The simplicity and resonance of the name with the astrophysical concept impressed Dr. Bower, the chief scientist of the Hawai’i operations at the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Pōwehi is now recognized as the official Hawaiian name for the black hole, and Governor David Y. Ige of Hawaii declared April 10th as “Pōwehi Day.”
While the name has received official recognition in Hawaii, it still needs approval from the International Astronomical Union. Dr. Bower explained that it would require the support of at least 200 scientists and 13 funding institutions involved in the project. Professor Kimura previously came up with the Hawaiian name “Oumuamua” for an asteroid discovered in 2017, showcasing his contribution to connecting Hawaiian language and culture with scientific discoveries.
Overall, the naming of the black hole and the asteroid reflects a growing recognition of indigenous languages and the importance of preserving cultural heritage in scientific endeavors.
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