Tyler Trent: An Up-and-Coming Astrophysicist Who Once Opposed the TMT

Tyler Trent, a 26-year-old graduate student in astrophysics at the University of Arizona, was born and raised on O‘ahu. He studies astrophysics with a focus on black holes: super-massive and super-compact objects with gravitational fields so strong that even light cannot escape once it is drawn into their maws. But pursuing an education in astronomy was not always his goal. His awareness of the subject began in 2015, when he became acquainted with some of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) protesters and, temporarily, was supportive: “My first introduction to Mauna Kea and astronomy was actually from the ‘other side’, and I was actually against TMT.”

Tyler’s life is one of hard work, and a passion for education and Hawaiian culture. For instance, in 2012, for his Eagle Scout Service Project, he chose to restore an ancient Hawaiian fishpond by removing invasive seaweed. “Fishponds were essential to the old Hawaiian way of life. By helping to restore this fishpond I was reconnecting with the ways of my ancestors, while also developing leadership skills as a Boy Scout. This is how I was being a Boy Scout in a Hawaiian cultural lens.”

He attended Kamehameha Schools Kapālama in Honolulu, one of the campuses of a Hawaiian private school system incorporating both academic excellence and a focus on Hawaiian history and culture. After graduating he started college in pursuit of a degree in physics and mathematics. At the same time, he worked several jobs—at Macaroni Grill, at Nico’s Pier 38, and tutoring with UAchieve and in the math department at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa—to help support his family.

Tyler (center, in the white shirt), and volunteers from his Boy Scout Troop, Troop 201, and the invasive seaweed cleaned out from an ancient Hawaiian fishpond at Waikalua Loko I‘a, his Eagle Scout Service Project in 2012.
Tyler (center, in the white shirt), and volunteers from his Boy Scout Troop, Troop 201, and the invasive seaweed cleaned out from an ancient Hawaiian fishpond at Waikalua Loko I‘a, his Eagle Scout Service Project in 2012. photo courtesy of Tyler Trent

Introduction to Astronomy

Tyler began his studies at Kapiʻolani Community College. As part of Ka Huliau, a bridge program helping students transition from a community college to a 4-year university, he came to Hilo (on the Big Island) in 2015. There were three modules in the bridge program—pharmacy, marine biology, and astronomy—unified through an overarching program of viewing these studies through the lens of Hawaiian culture.

It would have been Tyler’s first exposure to astronomy, but that component was cancelled due to TMT protesters who then blockaded the Mauna Kea Access Road. Insofar as astronomy was referenced, Tyler remembers that, toward the TMT, the messages were negative.

In the fall, Tyler started his studies at the UH-Mānoa, and there had the opportunity to meet astronomers and classmates studying astronomy; he learned about the Institute for Astronomy and its excellence as a research institution. “That’s when I started to get the idea that, ‘Oh, wow, they’re showing me all these great things.’”

And he realized that things he had been taught about the TMT through the bridge program were flawed, including claims such as that the TMT would harm the island’s water supply, that it would be environmentally damaging, that astronomy is “big business” and, akin to a commercial development, was motivated by financial greed. “I already have friends in grad school that have job offers outside of astronomy for half a million dollars a year. They’re turning it down to stay in astronomy. This is not about greed.”

The Importance of Education

Tyler points out that one of the incalculable benefits the TMT offers for Hawai‘i’s students is its financial support for STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics) education in Hawai‘i’s schools. To illustrate the point, he offers the story about his younger brother, Andrew, who attended public school.

In public school, the math courses his brother wanted and was prepared to take as a freshman were filled by upperclassmen; there simply weren’t enough teachers and classes. He had to re-take math subjects he had already passed, and by the time he graduated he had barely advanced over the level at which he began.

Tyler taking a break while hiking the Incinerator Ridge Trail on Mount Lemmon in Tucson, Arizona.  In the background, a sample astrophysics calculations of the type Tyler does best.
Tyler taking a break while hiking the Incinerator Ridge Trail on Mount Lemmon in Tucson, Arizona. In the background, a sample of what Tyler does best. photo courtesy of Tyler Trent

Take such a student, who would choose to go to college and pursue a STEM degree. Such fields require that the student is either ready for, or is already familiar with, calculus. But our student needs two more years of math courses to reach that level. By the time he or she is a junior, when they should be starting advanced classes, they are instead just now prepared to begin their introductory science or engineering courses. This is an unfair disadvantage to be placed in: it will take them more years of college to complete their degree, and that comes saddled with extra expense. Sadder still is to consider young people, with all the potential in the world, who would look at these challenges and deem their educational improvement to be impossible.

To date, the TMT’s THINK Fund has contributed more than $5.5 million since 2015 to support Hawai‘i Island students, teachers, schools, and programs in STEM education, and commits to continuing contributing $1 million per year to the THINK Fund throughout the duration of its lease. This brings tremendous opportunities to Hawai‘i’s students.

The Astrophysicist

“I’ve always been into theory. I want to make a contribution to the understanding of reality,” Tyler says. This is what took him into physics and math as an undergraduate, and, as he entered grad school, into astrophysics. “When I went into astronomy, I wanted to make sure I was still focusing on understanding the theories of what governs the things in space.”

Image of the event horizon around the black hole at the center of galaxy M87, captured in 2019 by astronomers with the Event Horizon Telescope, two elements of which are telescopes atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii
Image of the event horizon around the black hole at the center of galaxy M87, captured in 2019 by the Event Horizon Telescope, two elements of which are telescopes atop Mauna Kea. The black hole was named Pōwehi by Dr. Larry Kimura, a professor of Hawaiian language at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. “Pōwehi” means “embellished dark source of unending creation,” and comes from the Kumulipo, a Hawaiian chant describing the creation of the universe.

Before starting at the University of Arizona, he contacted professors who assisted him with a research project, an office, and financial support: Feryal Özel and Dimitrios Psaltis. Dr. Özel is a working group coordinator with the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). The EHT is a group of radio telescopes on sites all around the world, working and observing simultaneously to study, with exceptional precision, the event horizons surrounding super-massive black holes.

The event horizon is like the last frontier from which an observer can gather data about a black hole. Material rotating the invisible center emits information about the black hole’s size and mass, and tells a story about what happens in some of the most extreme conditions of space and time. Astrophysicists work with computational and mathematical modelling, calculating what happens according to physics. Their models identify the detectable information that should be found in these areas, which helps guide observational astronomers as they seek to collect data.

“I try to create computer simulations that model what goes on around a black hole, all the things flying around it and whatnot. Learn about the physics that governs them, and also, more importantly, what would that black hole look like if we were looking at it from here on Earth.”

The professors he works with are highly computational, a methodology that attracts Tyler’s analytical talents and he’s motivated to pursue. He’s confident that even if he doesn’t follow a career in astrophysics after he graduates, the skills he’s developing will transfer successfully to other occupations such as being a data scientist or programmer.

A One-Time Protester Disavowed

For [the protesters] to say that Native Hawaiians have a singular view about the utilization of Mauna Kea, it’s wrong. We’re a diverse culture with many different ideas and beliefs.

Tyler is enthusiastic about his studies and the pursuit of scientific excellence on Mauna Kea, which comes in tandem with historical, cultural, and environmental sensitivity. If there is anything he shows disappointment for, it is the fallout from the TMT protestors’ messaging that being Native Hawaiian is synonymous with being against pursuing science on the mountain, tout court.

“For [the protesters] to say that Native Hawaiians have a singular view about the utilization of Mauna Kea, it’s wrong. We’re a diverse culture with many different ideas and beliefs, and their letter [to SACNAS, the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, in 2019] specifically emboldens the argument that says that if you don’t believe this or that, then you’re not a real Native Hawaiian. And that was so hurtful because that’s the kind of thing I’ve gotten told multiple times: if you don’t believe that the Mauna Kea should be this way or that way, then you’re not a real Native Hawaiian, you have no cultural identity as a Native Hawaiian.” Tyler is a proud Native Hawaiian, and he supports the pursuit of astronomy on Mauna Kea.

He notes small improvement in that news and social media contains fewer cases of overgeneralizing all Native Hawaiians into one side of the dispute. Still, Tyler finds the arguments of the protesters to be specious, and hopes for a return to a harmonious sharing of Mauna Kea.

More information

Event Horizon Telescope

NPR’s Science Friday segment on the Event Horizon Telescope

Defining Sacred for Mauna Kea (Imua TMT Panel)

The TMT and Mauna Kea

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