With the world’s first image of a black hole made with the help of two Hawaii telescopes, astronomers say it was only right to give it a Hawaiian name.
That name is Powehi, offered up by University of Hawaii-Hilo Hawaiian language professor Larry Kimura.
“As soon as he said it, I nearly fell off my chair,” said Jessica Dempsey, co-discoverer and deputy director of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea.
Powehi means “the adorned fathomless dark creation” or “embellished dark source of unending creation.” The word comes from the Kumulipo, the 18th Century Hawaiian creation chant.
Dempsey said the astronomers approached Kimura a couple of weeks ago after the discovery had been confirmed.
“We described what we had seen and that this black hole was illuminating and brightening the darkness around it, and that’s when he came up with the name,” she said. “I had just spent 10 minutes explaining what this object was in science language. And in just this one word, he describes that.”
“What’s amazing to me is how deeply the Hawaiians were thinking and understanding the universe,” she added.
Po, a profound dark source of unending creation, is repeated in the Kumulipo, while wehi, or wehiwehi, honored with embellishments, is one of the chant’s descriptions of po.
Dempsey is part of the group of some 200 scientists who on Wednesday unveiled the first image of the supermassive black hole in the M87 galaxy nearly 54 million light-years from Earth.
The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and the Submillimeter Array, operated near the summit of Mauna Kea, are two of the eight telescopes that linked up two years ago to create a virtual Earth-sized telescope — the Event Horizon Telescope — big enough to capture the distant black hole and its ring of swirling super-heated gas and dust.
“It is awesome that we, as Hawaiians today, are able to connect to an identity from long ago, as chanted in the 2,102 lines of the Kumulipo, and bring forward this precious inheritance for our lives today,” Kimura said in a UH news release.
“To have the privilege of giving a Hawaiian name to the very first scientific confirmation of a black hole is very meaningful to me and my Hawaiian lineage that comes from po, and I hope we are able to continue naming future black holes from Hawaii astronomy according to the Kumulipo,” he said.
Dempsey said Kimura told her there are 100 different kinds of darkness in the Hawaiian language.
“This is just one, he said, so you’ve got 99 more names left that we can give you for the next things you find,” she said.