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There is a question I believe to be well on topic, relevant, and interesting. It is asking to consider a fictional scenario and evaluate, as given in the fictional scenario, whether it is possible to achieve with classical physics.

It is, I believe, people who are misapplying the prohibition against fictional physics, who have voted to put the question on hold. The prohibition is:

Questions about fictional physics "Could a warp drive get you out of a black hole?" Questions about physics of fictional worlds which are not sufficiently grounded in real physics are off topic here, but they may be on topic at Science Fiction & Fantasy.

This seems to me to suggest the prohibition is against trying to determine whether fictional physics rules would allow something to happen.

Is asking for a scenario to be evaluated against real-world physics then off topic? Is it off topic to ask if a fictional scenario is possible as it is described, if the physical rules being asked to judge it against are real-world rules?

Example, would asking if Verne's moon cannon is possible be off topic?

Is there recourse if off-topic rules are misapplied?

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    $\begingroup$ Which question? Can you post a link to it? $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Nov 26 '18 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnRennie Given the suggested edit and his answer there, presumably Kurt is referring to this question. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Nov 26 '18 at 17:42
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    $\begingroup$ ... in which case, I have to say that the fact that the question was on the Hot Network Questions was a strong influence on my vote to close. If that doesn't feel very fair, I'd counter with the question of why it's 'fair' that a question of that terrible a quality gets to represent this site on network-wide advertisement. Closing those questions is unfortunate, but (since SE seems a long way away from fixing the HNQ) a harder-than-usual stance on closure is often the only response that remains. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Nov 26 '18 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty I don't think that's a particularly "fair" use of the close reasons. I don't think we should have the right to curate the HNQ using the Vote to Close feature if the question isn't really off topic. HNQ isn't just about "representing the site"; it's about showing what is popular on the network. Many of the popular questions here are a poor representation of the site as a whole; but I don't think that's a valid reason to use close votes in situations where they would not regularly be warranted. Getting people thinking about physics, even just in fiction, is not inherently bad. $\endgroup$ – JMac Nov 26 '18 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty I specifically did not put in a reference to the question that spurred me to write this because I didn't want this to be about a particular question. However, I will say voting to close a physics question as off topic because you think the title made physics look bad, is at best an abuse of reputation. Put in a written rule to cover the situation, or apply the existing rules as they are written. You can turn off the TV when Bill Nye gets on if you like. $\endgroup$ – Kurt Fitzner Nov 26 '18 at 19:47
  • $\begingroup$ @KurtFitzner If it helps at all, the attention to the question here seems to have worked (the meta-effect as they call it). It's already sitting at 4 of 5 reopen votes cast. Usually if you think the site rules are not being applied properly, linking to the thread itself will help. The meta is good at bringing attention to these things. Even if you want to argue the general case, the example for a specific case usually makes it clearer what you are talking about in general. $\endgroup$ – JMac Nov 26 '18 at 19:52
  • $\begingroup$ @JMac I'm not saying it was the reason I voted to close. I'm saying that it was borderline with respect to topicality, and this tipped it over. And I agree - it is an imperfect use of the tool and in an ideal world this would be dealt with in other ways. As soon as SE provides us with tools to deal appropriately with the scourge of poor-quality clickbait getting posted to HNQ, we should switch to those. And if folks from SO complain that they're less able to earn rep off of clickbait that doesn't represent this site, then I really don't think that that should be a priority. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Nov 26 '18 at 19:53
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty I'm not sure where that "And if folks from SO complain that they're less able to earn rep off of clickbait that doesn't represent this site, then I really don't think that that should be a priority." comes from. That's not really relevant here. The issue here is that someone who wants to contribute doesn't understand the rules when they are applied in unclear ways. Also, why does it matter if "clickbait" from this site ends up in HNQ? Plenty of users discover this through some form of clickbait. That doesn't mean they wouldn't be able to contribute other ways. $\endgroup$ – JMac Nov 26 '18 at 20:06
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    $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty But also, you did call the HNQ aspect a "strong" factor in your vote to close; which to me seems like poor closure practice. Just like voting, we should be closing based on the content in the question, not based on how many people will view the question. $\endgroup$ – JMac Nov 26 '18 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ @JMac I have put in a link to the original question in mine above. It did not even occur to me when I first wrote it that off-topic was being used as a weapon against a question that was found uncomfortably populist. I have put the link in hoping that this can be a guide in the future when this happens again. $\endgroup$ – Kurt Fitzner Nov 26 '18 at 20:10
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    $\begingroup$ @JMac I've explained my vote - note that it was one in five. As for phrases like "abuse of reputation" and "uncomfortably populist", they're pretty rich coming from folks with minimal investment in this site. I don't want a site filled with junk-food questions. If that bothers folks, then I'm sorry that folks feel that way. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Nov 26 '18 at 20:23
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty There is a saying. Lead, follow, or get out of the way. Change the rule (lead), apply the rule as written (follow), or don't interfere with those who want to. Applying remedies for other problems in order to mitigate your personal pet peeves is pretty much the definition of an abuse of power. And investment, that has to start somewhere with everyone. This is where mine started. What you call junk food, I call the first rung. Do you remember yours? $\endgroup$ – Kurt Fitzner Nov 26 '18 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ @KurtFitzner Have you considered the possibility that (together with many others) I've been campaigning for better tools to deal with this problem for years? What makes you think that I haven't been trying to change these rules? Have you researched the topic on Meta SE? How aware are you of even the most recent episode? $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Nov 26 '18 at 21:37
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    $\begingroup$ @KurtFitzner I'd suggest moving the question about misapplication of the off-topic close reasons (i.e. your edit) to a separate meta post. $\endgroup$ – David Z Nov 26 '18 at 21:55
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Personally, I would agree with your assessment.

Questions about potentially fictional scenarios utilizing real physics would be on topic; because that would be in-essence the same as any hypothetical question concerned with real physical processes. It's important to note that this still needs to adhere to the rules regarding a conceptual focus. So for example "Why did X do Y when Z?" isn't really conceptual. If you can relate it directly to a concept in physics, and explain why that leads to a question, you're usually in pretty good shape.

Obviously, there still needs to be enough information to provide a good answer that is in-line with physics, and avoid being broad and opinion based.

Fictional physics should be off topic, but physics in fiction is not inherently off topic. As long as regular physics concepts can be reasonably applied to the scenario, and it is only about the scope of reality in a fictional scenario, these questions should be on-topic.

I assume this relates to the question "Could Sam have pierced Shelob's carapace?". If that's the case, I would agree that it's on-topic for this site. There are actually a couple Lord of the Rings examples that can be cited as well, such as "Could Legolas actually see that far?" and "Would molten gold “push” large, heavy objects away instead of submerging them?". Both take events from the fictional story and ask about the physics, and if the depiction is realistic in our own world.

I voted to reopen the question because I feel it did fit within the scope of Physics Stack Exchange as it is worded now.

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  • $\begingroup$ I was going to ask if you'd touch on the use of off-topic votes to counter questions some find uncomfortably populist, but the concise way you simply applied the off-topic rule as it is written I think addresses that issue clearly enough in its silence. $\endgroup$ – Kurt Fitzner Nov 26 '18 at 20:20
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As the lead in voting to close this question, I did so because I don't think analyzing physics in fictional settings1 is something we should address here.

The reason is simple: it is fiction. Which means it's fake. As in not real.

That's why we have the remarks about fictional physics in the help center: to prevent such questions from coming about, thereby lowering the site quality.

I should think it painfully obvious that any analysis of the story should be done in the fictional setting it is written in, which means not on this site because we deal with the real world. You could possibly ask such questions at SciFi.SE, but I don't think they're terribly receptive to the "Science of X" queries.

It is my opinion that all examples given by JMac should be closed because they're about physics of fictional settings, which, again, is expressly off-topic given by the help center.


1. To address the overly pedantic response in comments: by "fictional setting," we are not considering end of chapter (EOC) problems in textbooks because these are idealizations of scenarios aimed at instructing students in physics. We are considering works of literature, specifically science fiction and fantasy where laws of science are generally broken/disregarded.
EOC problems may be off-topic for other reasons (e.g., homework), but they would not be off-topic because of "physics of fictional settings" as mentioned here.

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    $\begingroup$ If analyzing physics in a fictional setting is off-topic , then half the end-of-chapter problems in standard physics textbooks are off topic. "If Bob flies to Alpha Centauri at 3/5 the speed of light, then instantly reverses course and returns home, how old will his twin be when he gets back?". That scenario is 100% fiction and the question is 100% on topic (though of course it could reasonably be closed as a duplicate or homework-like). Do you seriously want to ban every such question? $\endgroup$ – WillO Nov 27 '18 at 3:43
  • $\begingroup$ @WillO don't be pedantic. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Nov 27 '18 at 3:46
  • $\begingroup$ Kyle: My intent was not to be pedantic. My intent was to point out that it's commonplace to "dress up" a pure physics question by imbedding it in a fictional scenario, and if you are making some distinction between that commonplace practice and what happened in this question then I honestly do not understand what that distinction is. I do agree that it's not a great question, and I also agree that it's almost always better to keep the surrounding fictional narrative to a minimum. But.. (CONTINUED).... $\endgroup$ – WillO Nov 27 '18 at 3:51
  • $\begingroup$ ...(CONTINUED)...you seem to be seeing a difference in kind between the fictional scenario in this question and the fictional scenario in Bob's trip to Alpha Centauri, and I honest to God don't know what difference you're seeing. $\endgroup$ – WillO Nov 27 '18 at 3:52
  • $\begingroup$ Well, it might or might not be quite obvious if you have half a brain, but it is certainly not obvious to me. If you'd care to explain it, please do; if not, you can leave it a mystery, but please don't tell me I'm trying to pick nits when I'm honestly asking for a clarification. $\endgroup$ – WillO Nov 27 '18 at 3:53
  • $\begingroup$ The fictional scenario you describe is aimed at teaching someone physics. The fictional setting I'm obviously describing is a piece of literature. Do they not have such courses in schools anymore? $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Nov 27 '18 at 3:55
  • $\begingroup$ Like do you recognize the difference between Batman and say the nightly news, right? One of those things is real and the other a piece of fiction. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Nov 27 '18 at 3:56
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    $\begingroup$ The question appears to me to be asking for a clarification of Newton's Third Law. I don't see how that's any less "aimed at" teaching or learning physics than the story about the space traveler is. $\endgroup$ – WillO Nov 27 '18 at 3:56
  • $\begingroup$ So----I'm asking about what distinction you're seeing between two pieces of fiction. Your answer appears to be that one of them is fiction and one of them is not. That's obviously factually wrong. Which really makes it look like you're here just to bloviate. I'm done. $\endgroup$ – WillO Nov 27 '18 at 3:59
  • $\begingroup$ It's asking about Newton's law in the context of a magical sword being thrust into a giant spider. If you honestly don't see the difference between that and an EOC problem, I have no further use in discussing anything with you. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Nov 27 '18 at 4:00
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos It was pretty clear to me the question was not concerned at all with the magical nature of the sword, nor the mythical nature of Shelob specifically. The question was working under the assumption "no person is strong enough to pierce the skin" and then asked about the plausibility of something else providing the force, and how that might apply to Newtons third law. The question could be a lot clearer about what it's asking and how it frames it. I would even say that voting it as "unclear what you're asking" is more appropriate than closing it just because of a fictional framing. $\endgroup$ – JMac Nov 27 '18 at 11:45
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos It says "no man has the strength to pierce it's skin" which is actually different in my opinion. I don't think it's a particularly good question; but I don't think it's off topic just because the characters it's being framed with are fictional. I might even support a vote for "Unclear what you're asking" at this point, because the question is fairly poorly worded; but to me, it's entirely asking about real physics in a made up scenario. The question wants to apply real physics to a fictional scenario with real constraints as I understand it. $\endgroup$ – JMac Nov 27 '18 at 12:33
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    $\begingroup$ @JMac then what you propose is inherently too broad because any justification you make could be valid. It then turns PSE into an interpreter for literature, which is not the purpose. Let SFF.SE or Movies.SE or WB.SE be the arbiters on that, let us worry about real physics in the real world. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Nov 27 '18 at 12:36
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos I don't think we should be interpreting literature at all. I think if people are reading literature and it leads them to questions about real physical concepts, they should be free to ask them. Saying "I read this scene in a story, and although it's fictional, I am unsure if it follows these laws of physics for the following reasons" is a potentially good question in my opinion. I see no reason that a question should be inherently off topic because it's concern is with fictional characters or literature. Those SE's are for checking the validity in story context... $\endgroup$ – JMac Nov 27 '18 at 12:44
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos It was a question about real optics. The fact that the character and distances comes from a book doesn't change that. The question makes it very clear IMO about the constraints, and it puts it well within the realm physics is able to answer. It's a bit different in cases like here where it isn't as constrained, therefore I would argue somewhat unclear. It's not because it's a fictional scenario; it's because it's a fictional scenario with insufficient information to give a meaningful physical answer. $\endgroup$ – JMac Nov 27 '18 at 13:08

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