I've worked in conjunction with astronomers and astrophysicists for the past seven years and more. I'm struck by the naiveté among astronomers about the way they make knowledge of the universe. For the most part, they are physicists first and astronomers second. So, they're used to thinking of what they do as a 'hard' science (as opposed to, say, archaeology, which I'm sure they'd say was fairly squishy in the science department). And, although they believe their science to be an exact one, they are always amazed, confused or delighted when their expectations drawn from what they know of physics can't be reconciled with what they've newly observed.
I wonder if they don't intuitively (a dirty word to most 'hard' scientists) understand the ambiguity inherent in making knowledge of the past. When I talk to them, they seem puzzled when I suggest that their 'data' are presently occurring phenomena, and that everything they think they know is based on well-understood physical phenomena that they can observe only in the present. However, rather like evolutionary biologists, who understand a great deal about what life is all about in the here and now, but who are at a loss to explain how life began, astronomers are, if not at a loss, taxed to the limit when it comes to understanding the early days of the universe with only present knowledge to guide them.
The similarities don't end there. I find in astronomy the same dichotomy of aims that I and others have seen in archaeology, and which Kent Flannery so famously and humorously depicted in the Golden Marshalltown. In astronomy there are 'observers' and 'cosmologists' just as in archaeology there are the 'Old Timers' who collect data and the theorists who profit from it. Neither can live without the other, yet both have little but disdain for the other's predeliction.
The truly galling reality for me is that, for two disciplines that make knowledge of the past in identical ways, the disparity in funding is obscene. And that, my archaeological friends, is where the rubber hits the road for me. In truth, the findings of early universe physicists and the findings of archaeologists are equally tenuous, and, at the end of the day equally unlikely to change the life circumstances of a single human being, but only the archaeologists seem capable of seeing it that way (and more than a few are, I think rightly, convinced that they can indeed alter the lives of oppressed people and cultures in danger of assimilation or passive genocide).
I'll rest for the moment. But I fear that I'll be forced to revisit this curious disparity between archaeology and astronomy at some point in the future. (Was that an oxymoron?)