Makana Silva, a self-described kanak (kanaka maoli), a Native Hawaiian astrophysicist and strongman, hails from the island of O‘ahu and currently is working on his dissertation in the physics department at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Born and raised in humble conditions, his longtime interest in science has taken him to study the subtle phenomena of gravitational waves.
A quiet youngster, Makana got involved with canoe (wa‘a) paddling in order to connect with his community. At the time he was attending Wai‘anae Intermediate where, in 7th grade, he became interested in the DNA molecule. He was fascinated by “how a few organic elements — nitrogen, carbon, oxygen — know to get together to create things like you and I with consciousness, fear, motivation, all of these things. It baffled me.” Makana envisioned himself pursuing studies in stem cell regeneration, especially in how it’s used for cancer treatment. But as he delved further into learning how molecules interact, he landed upon a subject he knew he would pursue permanently: understanding things at their most basic, quantum, level.
By his freshman year at Wai‘anae High School, he was interested in the physics around black holes. Quantum mechanics — the theory that describes and predicts what happens to the universe’s smallest bits of matter and energy — breaks down in the extreme conditions at the event horizon. The event horizon around a black is where the black hole’s gravity is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape.
Makana’s teachers at Wai‘anae high school had plans to prepare him during his sophomore year to better understand the math and physics dealing with this area of study. “To understand general relativity, I can’t pick up just any general textbook like Robert Wald’s General Relativity and just start reading it at that age. I didn’t know the right math, I didn’t know enough physics. Just general concepts.”
As things turned out for his sophomore year, Makana was able to transfer to Kamehameha Schools Kapālama High School in Honolulu. Thanks to the school’s resources, including their setting up Makana with his first laptop, he was soon absorbing information as quickly as he could set eyes onto it. He remembers teachers, like Gail Ishimoto and Meg Mehlan at Kamehameha, who helped to focus and refine his drive, and Ryan Sasaki at Wai‘anae High School who, during classes on abstract mathematical and geometrical concepts, emphasized showing with physical examples how math worked in the world. “As a thought process, I think that’s a good way to connect mathematics to reality. That’s what we do in physics, we write theories, we write these ideas on the board based on a set of axioms, logic, and assumptions, and we see: does reality behave that way? Because at the end of the day, what you write on the board isn’t necessarily the way reality is. It’s supposed to be a reflection of reality that allows us to predict things.”
Supportive teachers continued to appear in Makana’s life in college. Sarah Post, a math professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, took Makana under her wing and spent the summer of 2015 teaching him differential equations. She also worked with him on mathematical physics research projects until he graduated in May 2017.
Makana particularly remembers at that time learning the mathematics of string theory, which posits the existence of miniscule one-dimensional filaments of energy. The ways they vibrate in 10 (or 11) dimensions are the building blocks of everything. String theory solves the long-standing problem of getting the theories of quantum mechanics (a theory of physical matter that considers the universe at is smallest scale) and general relativity (a theory of gravity, considering the universe as its largest scales) to talk to each other. In other words, in their current forms, the two theoretical systems are couched in very different vocabularies that do not translate into the other. This poses problems for researchers who would want to use both, for instance, to represent and describe the nature of black holes, or the state of the very early universe near the time of the Big Bang. Additionally, the framework of string theory creates a space for gravitational force to be seen as having a particle, the graviton, that carries it, on a par with the other fundamental forces of nature (electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces).
Pursuing his graduate studies at The Ohio State University, Makana has studied exoplanets and gravitational lensing. Under the guidance of his mentor, Christopher Hirata, he aims to become a premier specialist in perturbation theory and gravitational waves.
A Brief Sidebar: Gravity
It may be hard to imagine, but the gravitational force we all seem clearly and constantly under the influence of, was not always thought sensible.
After Isaac Newton introduced it in 1687, one of several critiques was that although his equations could describe objects’ behavior, like how long it takes a piece of bread to land on the floor after it’s knocked off a table, it was not clear how any massive body (the Earth) could compel another body (a piece of bread) to move toward it. Additionally, at the time, bodies in motion were conceived to be caused to move by being impacted by other bodies in motion, in a way similar to how a still ball on a pool table will move after it is hit by another, moving, ball. A natural question in Newton’s time was: what particles of matter are responsible for movements caused by gravity? In the abyss of space, what in-contact moving object explains why a planet stays in orbit around the Sun? Do particles carry gravitational force? To paraphrase a question asked by Dr. Janna Levin (in a video discussing gravity at five levels of complexity), if the Sun disappeared tomorrow, would be be able to tell immediately, even faster than the 8 minutes it would take for us to see that the Sun’s light had disappeared?
Without question, Newton’s theory worked so well that it became widely used, and is still used today, even if at bottom no one understood why it worked. 228 years later, in 1915, Einstein’s general theory of relativity provided an answer, by re-conceptualizing gravity as the geometric curvature of space and time, bent and dented by the massive bodies (stars, planets, galaxies, etc.) within it. Einstein’s general relativity solved existing problems that Newton’s theory could not, like peculiarities in Mercury’s orbital path around the Sun. It also predicted phenomena later detected: gravitational lensing (the bending of light around massive bodies in space) and gravitational waves.
While gravity may seem practically unavoidable to us, it is far and away the weakest of the four fundamental forces of nature, so gravitational waves are extraordinarily difficult to detect. So as one would do for terrestrial cases of looking for something hard to find and far far away: use the best tools to see that one can, and look for the biggest example one can find in the distance. For gravitational waves, that means creating instruments with a spectacular degree of sensitivity, as were developed for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO). These are pointed toward massively energetic and cataclysmic events in outer space, like inspiraling black holes. These coalesce into one larger body, creating gravitational waves big enough that we here on Earth can notice them. In 1973, LIGO co-founder Kip Thorne wrote about the project: “The technical difficulties to be surmounted in constructing such detectors are enormous. But physicists are ingenious, and with the support of a broad lay public, all obstacles will surely be overcome.” 46 later, gravitation waves were first detected.
Black Holes, Gravitational Waves, and EMRIs
Makana studies a particular kind of inspiral, EMRIs — extreme mass ratio inspiral — where the ratio of the masses of the two bodies involved is very small, on the order of 10-3 to 10-4. Put differently, if the mass of one object were 1 solar mass (the mass of our Sun), then the partnering black hole would be around 10,000 solar masses. “We fundamentally believe that most galaxies have at their center, the thing pulling all the spirals in, is a super-massive black hole, and essentially all the little things around the super-massive black hole, they fall within an EMRI category. So this is a good probe for understanding gravitational radiation that comes from our galactic center, and other galactic centers.”
So far, so good, and the nature of Makana’s studies gets deeper still. Believe it or not, there are mathematical descriptions of natural phenomena so complex they defy solution. In this situation, an item in a physicist’s toolkit that Makana uses is perturbation theory. In brief, this is an approach to an intractable calculation that makes it possible to break the mathematical problem into smaller, solvable parts. This happens by introducing small changes (perturbations) to some of the equation’s parameters. After solving and connecting the parts back together, one can achieve an approximate solution to the original mathematical conundrum, and make accurate predictions about the phenomena in question.
Using perturbation theory to understand EMRIs allows astrophysicists like Makana to make predictions and test the general theory of relativity with data from LIGO (and, hopefully later, LISA, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna). “At the end of the day, all of these theories are just theories. Every time we make a new measurement, every time we get another observation, we get closer and closer to kind of locking in to, ‘Ok, we really got this right in this subspace,’ or ‘Maybe we need to tweak something here.’”
Makana’s research stands to have wide-ranging consequences to our understanding of the universe in our own “backyard” with the black hole at the center of our own galaxy, and extending out to other galaxies and the black holes at their centers. Ultimately, gravitational waves and the information they carry could improve our grasp of the very early universe. We’re talking here about reaching further back in time than any of our best telescopes can gather photos to see. We’re talking about reaching back to an age of the universe before photons and electromagnetic waves existed.
Ho‘i Mai: Bring the Knowledge Back Home
Although Makana isn’t a fan of Ohio’s cold winters, he is thankful for having the chance to live on the mainland, and to work with and meet new people. “It’s given me perspective. Being an island boy and just staying at home and doing the same things we always do — it’s great, don’t get me wrong, that’s why I want to come back — but I think I just naturally wanted to see what it’s like. I’m happy, because I’m learning things I don’t think I would have ever learned back in Hawai‘i. I think I am learning topics not just that I really love, but I feel like I’m personally good at, and I can do something with it. And I would have never discovered that back home, because no one was studying what I study now.
“At the end of the day, leave the islands, leave your home, and then come back, right? I believe the ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i for that is ho‘i, you return. So, you journey far from home, you learn as much as you can, and when you come back, you ho‘i mai, you take all those new things you learned and you apply them at home in hopes to better and advance our communities.”
Living on the mainland has also given Makana a new perspective of astronomy in Hawai‘i. While on O‘ahu, he understood that Mauna Kea was an important place for astronomical observations, but he didn’t realize its greater significance until he moved away and met scientists elsewhere. “To me it was, ‘Oh, we do that in Hawai‘i because we’re in Hawai‘i.’ I didn’t realize there were people who will literally flock and send hundreds of millions of dollars, even billions of dollars, to put a project on there, because of the implication that project will have on the next several decades of research. And by research, that just doesn’t equate to papers. A lot of tangential great things come out from those papers. Especially from the engineering side.”
Makana experienced an eye-opening visit to Mauna Kea with Tyler Trent and Wally Ishibashi. Intuitively, He had expected that the people running the telescopes and working at the observatories were white (haloe). At the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), Wally asked what they thought of the mauna thus far. As they had visited only one observatory before that, where the two people were working were both white, it seemed things were playing out as Makana and Tyler thought they would.
“And then Wally goes to the intercom or something, and tells everyone at CFHT, ‘Hey, all you haoles, come down!’ And it was a bunch of kanakz from Keaukaha and Kona! I think that’s where the majority of them came from. These 8 or 9 guys came down, they’re all from Hawai‘i, they went to Big Island high schools, and they explained, ‘Oh yeah, brah, we went to high school and to college and then came here.’
“These guys played a critical role in the performance of CFHT – they weren’t just the janitors. They were the engineers, they kept the place running, they kept the things greased, they kept instruments going. If something broke, they called them. It’s great seeing kanakz winning, actually using the skills that they learned and applying them in Hawai‘i and not having to go somewhere else. That’s how you create a stronger workforce and a growing sense of intelligence — you don’t send all the smart people away. You keep them home!”
One man working at the CFHT stands out in Makana’s memory, who told him that he’ll consider his life well-led if his actions go toward creating a Hawai‘i where his son, who is interested in aerospace, can one day pursue a career. Makana agrees with that idea of success: “The fact of the matter is that there are not a lot of well-paid STEM and engineering fields here, and that’s why a lot of people leave, why a lot of them come to the mainland. It’s one of my goals in life to keep our smart kanakz at home, and make kanakz smarter.”
One complication to this kind of future concerns current objections to astronomy’s presence on Mauna Kea, exacerbated by difficulties in communication. At the 2019 American Astronomical Society meeting in Honolulu, for instance, there was an SRO presentation of four speakers, two — Makana and Tyler — in favor of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), and two speakers against, Pua Case and Lanakila Mangauil. It came as some surprise when, after their presentation, Pua and Lanakila exited without participating in the question and answer period. Makana recalls that “From what I understand, they had a flight to catch. But they could have cut the Q&A short and at least had a few questions. I had questions. But none of us could ask anything.”
Makana is happy to engage with those who disagree with astronomy’s presence on Mauna Kea, and dispel rumors about the TMT such as that it would pump radioactive material into the aquifer, a popular falsehood spread on social media. “Let me show you the environmental impact statement,” he remembers of his part of one such conversation. “The first and the third ones cover the environmental aspect. And we went through the list and I went, ‘Huh, where’s the nuclear stuff? In fact, I think it’s powered by good ol’ electricity powered by fossil fuel. There’s a power line that goes up, and that’s probably it.’”
Yet even after addressing concerns and shunting rumors, he often found objectors concluding that they still simply didn’t like the TMT. He explored further through conversations and found a response that “I don’t think is fair to the project and people like myself is ‘We just need a win for the Hawaiians.’ A win for the Hawaiians? Wouldn’t it be a win for the Hawaiians to have more Hawaiians going to college, pursuing their educational dreams and career wishes? Isn’t that a win for Hawaiians?”
Makana also cautions against thinking that resistance to astronomy on Mauna Kea is unambiguously rooted in Hawaiian culture. “If you want to bring up culture, then you’ve got to be careful with your history. Because the significance of that place, it was an adze quarry for a long time. People were exploiting the natural resources of the mauna long before Captain Cook. So for me, I don’t ever see a place where from the actual ancient development of our culture it was like, ‘No, you cannot be up there.’ That’s a very recent phenomenon, like within the last maybe 60 years, certain families have developed that. But it’s not as ancient as back to the days of Kamehameha. It was a special place, definitely. It was a place of connection to the sky, but not to the point of where no one should be on there. I don’t know. It’s up for interpretation, obviously.”
Rooted in an Evolving Culture, Makana Stands Strong
Makana’s steadfast support of astronomy in Hawai‘i is an example of his general ruling principle in life: “Just because you feel resistance, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong. There are many times when I encountered resistance in certain decisions that I made, goals I sought after, and they were resistances where most people would think, ‘If it was meant to be, it would have come a lot easier.’ I would say, always be prepared to stand your ground. Now that doesn’t mean be cocky, but what that means is that if you are certain of something, and you know deep in your na‘au that it’s something you want to do or it is something you want to investigate, or something that you want to pursue: no matter who stands in your way, don’t let them.”
On the subject of astronomy and Mauna Kea, Makana has, by some, been deemed as not a “real Hawaiian,” and he remembers bitterly being labelled a “used Clorox wipe, because I’m white but covered in brown.” He gave the possibility some thought. “Are they right? Maybe they’re right, let’s think about that, why would that be the case?
“And I thought, and I think they’re wrong. Because last I checked, when plants grow, they grow down and up. The roots determine how far a tree can go up. Our cultural roots are in hula, they’re in chant, they’re in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, they’re in canoes, hoe wa‘a, even surfing. That’s all true.
“But why stop there? We have this whole world of new things now. Let’s incorporate it. And we’re seeing that now. We’re seeing modern art come into a lot of native Hawaiian-led clothing stores, and it’s beautiful. And why stop there?”
“One thing I’ve developed from the TMT is that it’s solidified why I do what I do. At the end of the day I’m learning all this cool stuff, and what I do may or may not impact cell phone development, computer development. But I know the one thing it will directly impact, that I tangibly can touch, is the future and vision of the next generation.”
“The only way we’re going to pass on the ‘ike that we have, our knowledge, is by the things that we do. Whether it’s published papers, whether it’s patents, whether it’s teaching a course. All these things are tangible to the next generation who’s looking for them. Especially with the age of the internet, I give a lecture on quantum mechanics or general relativistic dynamics, it’ll stay up there. And I personally believe what we contribute now to this generation is a perpetuation of what we do as a civilization. For me personally, as a kanak, I believe what I do as a Hawaiian now is perpetuating our culture for the future. Some people might completely disagree with me. Some people, in my opinion, conflate historical culture with the culture of today. When the point of culture is that it’s evolving.
“As a Hawaiian, that is what I’m doing. I am perpetuating my culture by wanting to study astronomy in Hawai‘i, by taking the things that we learned from resources in Hawai‘i and making an impact globally. It’s not just Hawaiians that are going to develop from this. The world is going to develop. And the world will remember where it came from, and who did it. They’ll remember seeing Makana Silva or Tyler Trent or Mailani Neal or Heather Kaluna, or countless other Native Hawaiian names on there. They’ll remember those names. When you find a paper with Kaluna et al., in my opinion, that’s how you perpetuate a culture. That’s one way of perpetuating a culture. That’s what I want to do, perpetutation through contribution. I want to perpetuate Hawaiian culture based on what I give back to this world. Because when I leave, that’s all that’s going to be left. It’s more than just representation, it’s about showing our community that we can take what we knew in the past, what we are learning now, and build a brighter future for our communities.”
From a quiet young boy of limited means to a young man specializing in theoretical astrophysics and devoting his energy to speaking out on behalf of Hawaiians who also support astronomy in Hawaiʻi, Makana has had a challenging and rewarding life. “I’ll definitely say it wasn’t an easy journey for me, but if I’d go back, I wouldn’t change a single damned thing that I did, not a single thing.”