Astronomy and Physics captivate the minds of many. That, in and of itself, is one of the strongest arguments you can make about why astronomy is important: People care about it. We’re studying the rest of the entire universe, after all, and the universe is all that there is (and theoretical astrophysics, with its M theory, posits other universes entirely) .
That said, the desire to comprehend the universe can lead in some pretty odd directions. One of the first things that told me I’d “made it” as a scientist was when I started receiving unsolicited theories – the “No one may ever have the same knowledge again” type of theory. You know, alternative Science. I’m being charitable.
Yes, while still a mere graduate student, not yet past my qualifying exams, I found myself the recipient of a slow but persistent trickle of emails from physics and astronomy enthusiasts. They are all quite certain they’ve come up with some groundbreaking, paradigm-shattering concept that, despite typically having no mathematical formulation or grounding in observable reality, must be shared with the world, and would I and my enlightened soul please pass this along to my colleagues within the ivory tower echo chamber that is Elite Science. Occasionally I read them for fun; some times they’re complex attempts at reconciling events from the Bible or Quran with modern physics using a complete disregard of Occam’s Razor, some times they’re attempts to explain away an inconvenience like global warming with very oversimplified principles, and some times they’re truly bizarre collections of letters and punctuation that rival The Time Cube.
From a more sociological perspective (because of course I’m qualified to talk about those things) I do find these notes interesting. Usually, when I read about alternative theories in medicine, there’s a very real wall built up between the pseudoscientists and mainstream science: cries of “Big Pharma” and conspiracies to repress the truth, and appeals to whole schools of mystical thinking that attempt to explain how unprovable claims can still be true anyway. The astronomical notes I receive have some of that – frequent invocations of Galileo’s persecution, references to Orthodoxy, or the open-minded principle of evidence over all – but by and large they’re positive; they WANT me to be impressed with what they’ve come up with, and they want me to be their champion to open the eyes of the others to the truth they’ve revealed.
I wonder: Is that unique to physics and astronomy? On the one hand, Physics and Astronomy (all the hard sciences, really) tend to butt up against areas that relate to the big questions of philosophy, like “Why are we here?” and “What is ‘here’ anyway?”. On the other hand, medicine has much more obvious, pressing, short-term consequences for being wrong (e.g. I shook the Stick of Healing non-stop and the patient died anyway). And there’s gotta be some selection bias here: if those folks didn’t want my endorsement, or thought I was part of the irreparably corrupt establishment, they wouldn’t be emailing me…
I guess if I really want to answer that question, I’d have to do a detailed study of viXra. And get a social scientist to help me.