Sunday 23 October 2011

Astronomy is Archaeology or It Is Nothing!

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?)


  1. I was asked to speak at the 60th birthday celebration of a famous "cosmologist" who writes fabulously best selling books on things like the meaning of life and won some fabulously well paid prize about reconciling science and religion. I did not understand until I started writing my paper just how tenuous some of the arguments of such people are. I gave my paper, which did not please many in the audience because it said "there are no gods, except Eric Clapton" and found that I had been thought controversial for challenging some of the assumptions. I guess I should start writing fabulously best selling books.

  2. Just remember us little people when you're rich and famous. BTW, did you ever notice how phonetically close 'famous' is to 'fameless'?

  3. Great post Rob. What are you waiting for Iain? Start being fabulous now. Rob - font is great, but my failing eyesight has terrible trouble with the TINY font size in the comments

  4. The look is getting better. We can see the chair again. And the font size for he comments is a great improvement (thanks, Katrina). Now we just need to notice that the white and yellow stand out like dogs' **** while the green and blue in funny font are difficult to read and we will be getting somewhere. By the way, stick with this line length. Any longer and it will be difficult to do the line wrap.
    And the answer, Katrina, is that I am writing a report. For the first time in my life, I am close to getting it in on time! Then I have a holiday in Europe. But as things look for next year, I may have to get down to the fabulous book. Which one?

  5. Thanks for the counter, Rob. But perverse to lose the yellow! Now I just have to work on the font on the right hand side. And I'd still change the green to yellow. UNE now has green as its dominant colour!


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