# Are questions about the identification of physical phenomena on-topic?

This question was just closed as off-topic. It is a well presented question, which was well-received, and it got a good, canonical answer. The stated reason for closing was that "it doesn't appear to be about physics, it's just asking us to identify something." I think this is closed-minded and silly. Nobel prizes have been awarded for "identifying things" like radiation, argon, the neutron, the CMB, and many others. The distinction between "identifying" and "explaining" is just semantics.

I think this is a great question regarding physics of an everyday phenomenon, which is making this SE and physics in general more accessible to non-physicists. It is very much in the same spirit as many other popular "everyday physics" questions on this site. E.g. this one about inverted pyramid ice spikes, this one about Oreo's, this one about another shadow effect, and this one about wet tiles. I'm 120 rep shy of being able to cast a re-open vote, but I will surely be doing so once I can. What do other people think?

I agree and would vote to reopen if the closing vote weren't a mod. Reasons:

• One does not know before asking the question what the answer is going to look like. Once you've seen the answer then one could say it's a meteorological phenomenon and not a physics one, but a priori it could equally be an optics question.
• Meteorology is intimately related to physics. One could apply to a postgraduate meteorology degree with a physics undergraduate degree. Some programs such as this one even offer a "physics and meteorology" degree.
• David Z wrote in a comment that "[the question is] just asking us to identify something" and that's not physics. I disagree. Example, lots of physicists spent time to figure out the labels on this image, and a physics exam could easily ask "what process is this? Which particle is the electron and which is the positron?".

(source: bigganblog.com)

• Lots of people who read the physics.SE thought the question was interesting (hence the upvotes). Whether the question is in physics seems rather pedantic as long as it's interesting.
• I take issue with a couple of your arguments: first of all, when lots of people think a question is interesting, that most definitely does not make it on topic. Also just because something could appear on a physics exam, that doesn't mean it's on topic for this site. – David Z Aug 18 '20 at 7:14
• @DavidZ I'll point out that it's not just "people" who think the question is interesting - it's people who are interested in physics who find this question interesting. – Allure Aug 18 '20 at 7:16
• Yes of course, that was implicit. If they weren't interested in physics, they wouldn't be here. That doesn't change my objection to your argument. – David Z Aug 18 '20 at 7:18
• I concur with @DavidZ 's objections to parts of your argument but still find the remainder of your argument compelling. – WillO Aug 18 '20 at 16:54
• Many sciences are concerned with identifying things. I'm not sure why everyone thinks physics has a monopoly on identifying things, or that if someone is identifying something they are doing physics. Identification$\neq$physics. – BioPhysicist Aug 19 '20 at 12:14
• I was +1 on this answer, although I note I disagree with this part: "would vote to reopen if the closing vote weren't a mod". That's not a valid reason, in my opinion, for how to cast your vote. The site is community moderated - You're allowed to disagree with the moderators. (As of the time of this comment, it looks like the question has, in fact, be reopened.) – Brick Aug 20 '20 at 17:21
• @Allure False, it's people who use Stack Exchange, mostly programmers. Because of HNQ – user253751 Aug 20 '20 at 17:57
• @Brick my reasoning on that is that a single mod vote is enough to close while it takes several non-mod votes to close, and a mod can close the question even if it's reopened, so it's kind of pointless to vote to reopen. The question is currently reopened though, which I interpret as David Z having changed his/her mind. – Allure Aug 20 '20 at 22:17
• @user253751 at the time the question was closed I think it only had ~200 views and had barely been on HNQ. – Allure Aug 20 '20 at 22:17
• @BioPhysicist I agree identification is not the same as physics but this particular explanation is physics-based (and one has reason to believe that it is physics-based when asking it). – Allure Aug 20 '20 at 22:18

The close reason on the question directs to the help center. The first bullet point in the on-topic section reads:

Explanations of observed physical or astronomical phenomena

Perhaps there is confusion since the question is asking "what is this" rather than "why is this". Unfortunately, to effectively do research for "why", you need to first know "what". Perhaps the question could include an explicit question of "why", but I think the phrase "in hopes I could figure out what they were" include an implicit expectation of "why".

I believe these (currently open) questions to be similar to the one in question:

I voted to reopen, and am pleased to see that an interesting answer has now been given to an interesting physics question. I don't see any argument that this was not a physics question or that it was not on topic. Moderator privileges are intended to shortcut the process of voting if there are clear cut reasons why that should be done. They should not be used to suppress answers according to the personal view of a moderator who (as in this case) does not have a strong physics background. If this were an isolated instance, I would have held my peace. But I have many times seen a moderator (particularly this one) close questions about areas of physics in which he has no particular expertise (notably questions of qm and gr). I would urge all moderators to consider how they use moderator privileges, and to acknowledge that if they are not expert in a particular field they should not unilaterally close questions.

• This question isn't about QM or GR. Also, based on the moderator's answer here, it doesn't look like they closed the question in order to suppress answers. I think they just closed it based on the question itself. Additionally, moderator action and privilege usually isn't supposed to be tied down to specific areas of expertise (at least, I am not aware of specific physics subject expertise entering into moderator elections, decisions, roles, etc.). Moderators are just trying to keep the site following policy, not to stick within their own physics expertise. – BioPhysicist Aug 19 '20 at 18:54
• @BioPhysicist, that misses the point. A vote to close is one thing. To unilaterally close a question based on a personal opinion is something else, and is an abuse of moderator privilege. – Charles Francis Aug 19 '20 at 18:58
• All closure choices are based on opinions. Unless you can prove that the moderator was closing the question purely out of some selfish reason, then I don't see how you can say it is privilege abuse. – BioPhysicist Aug 19 '20 at 19:00
• @BioPhysicist, Would you regard conceit, a willingness to unilaterally pronounce on subjects one knows little about, while discounting the views of others, as a selfish reason? On the other hand, whether or not it is selfish, I certainly see closing questions because of personal ignorance as privilege abuse. Science literally means "knowledge". Opinion based on ignorance rather than knowledge should not entitle one even to vote, let alone unilaterally close questions. Any honorable human would skip votes on question when they have no knowledge. – Charles Francis Aug 19 '20 at 19:19
• I would suggest you to not use the answer to single out a certain moderator and make strong and incisive statements (some of them are even false) against them. This question focuses on site policies, and thus, so should its answers. As for the particular mod not knowing relevant physics, QM you say, is completely false. That mod has a silver badge in QM with more than 113 answers. That is, IMO, enough QM knowledge to be not called out for your QM expertise. As for GR, I currently (though reluctantly) seem to agree with your assertion. – user258881 Aug 19 '20 at 19:27
• As for your last comment, I completely support you, however, if you really eant to take this issue up (the mod abusing their priviledges), I suggest you create a new Meta post, and also consider giving references to the instances where the mod "abused" their unilateral close votes. Without links, your claim just looks more of a rant-cum-attack on the particular mod. – user258881 Aug 19 '20 at 19:31
• @FakeMod, fair enough. I don't wish to launch a personal attack, and I think a list of references would be even more in the way of a personal attack, which is why I have sought to limit my comments to general remarks. But at some time when I have time and energy, there are a number of issues I would like to raise on meta. This is probably not the most important, it is just one which happens to have come up now. – Charles Francis Aug 19 '20 at 19:45

As the other person who voted to close this question, I will weigh in here as well (bring on the down votes! (although comments opening up a discussion would be greatly appreciated)).

First, most of the arguments as to why the question deserves to be open here are invalid to use as criteria for a question to be opened or closed. Note that I am not saying this particular questions fail in all of these regards necessarily, but general application of these "leave open" reasons are usually a bad idea.

A question being well received does not make it on topic, just like how a question gaining many down votes does not necessarily mean the question should actually be closed (although this is usually the case). There are many instances where high-voted questions are closed, especially due to the HNQ (but not always).

Additionally, questions should not be judged based on their answers or their potential for answers. If this were the case, then any closure policy becomes invalid, as a user could type up an amazing answer to a poor question. An amazing answer could then save the closure of a bad question, which I don't think most users would think should be allowed.

Nobel prizes have been awarded for "identifying things" like radiation, argon, the neutron, the CMB, and many others. The distinction between "identifying" and "explaining" is just semantics.

Identifying things is not unique to physics. And physics is certainly not defined as "the science of identifying things". So identification is not a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a question to be about physics. And even then, not all questions that can be related to physics are on topic here.

I think this is a great question regarding physics of an everyday phenomenon, which is making this SE and physics in general more accessible to non-physicists.

Being about the physics of every day phenomenon or making the site more accessible to other users is also not sufficient to allow a question to remain open. Once again, one could easily make poor questions meeting these criteria. Especially in the latter case: e.g. allowing all homework questions would definitely make the site more accessible to new students of physics.

It is very much in the same spirit as many other popular "everyday physics" questions on this site. E.g. this one about inverted pyramid ice spikes, this one about Oreo's, this one about another shadow effect, and this one about wet tiles.

One shouldn't use currently open questions to determine if a different question should be open or closed. The popularity of questions can be greatly skewed by the HNQ. Also, you can probably find many examples of questions that should have been closed that are currently open. This happens sometimes on meta when users want a homework question to be opened. They dig through past posts until they find a question that slipped through the cracks. On the flip side, we can find popular "physics of every day phenomenon" questions that indeed have been closed, such as this one and another wet tile question. Playing the meta-game of "I can find other questions that prove my point" can easily be played by both sides with no clear winner.

The only thing I see that starts moving in the right direction is

It is a well presented question

Certainly if a question is not well presented it deserves to be closed (usually due to clarity issues). But a question being well presented is not sufficient for it to remain open. For example, there could be really well written questions about a new theory someone has. However, as policy we don't allow questions asking about personal theories because there usually isn't a well-defined answer one can post to the question.

So then, why did I vote to close this question? The OP here is not asking to learn about any physics concepts here. They are just asking, "Hey, what is this?". And while the answer can be stated relating to physical phenomena, like I said earlier, we cannot judge questions based on their answers or potential answers. Additionally, questions like these often are missing a lot of information. Here there is just a picture, and then some information the OP thinks might be useful. Often much speculation is needed, and once answers are posted there are still conflicting answers or thoughts about what is really going on$$^*$$ (as has started in the comments of the current answer).

$$^*$$I do not mean to make it seem like I am saying "Don't judge questions based on answers." and then "These questions should be closed because of answers." What I mean by "Don't judge questions based on answers / potential answers" is that it is not valid to say "look at this awesome answer. This question should be open." Because it could very well be the case that the question is complete garbage.

However, this is a Q&A site, where we want definitive answers to questions. If a question cannot garner definitive answers then it should indeed be closed. The various answers could have ranges from good to bad answers, but with varying content. Therefore, this point is still about the quality of the question, not the individual answers it might be able to receive.

• +1 Nice answer. Though, asking for (or showing expectations of) downvotes ("bring on the downvotes!"), often brings more downvotes than the post would have gained without it. It is too trivial (and opinionated) to be edited by me, but I suggest you to remove that part, because all it does is to incite potential downvoters to downvote (who might not have downvoted if they weren't challenged to do so), skewing the score of the answer. – user258881 Aug 19 '20 at 17:56
• @FakeMod I don't think usually downvotes are stifled due to lack of permission / call to down vote. I am agreeing with David Z here, so I just expect a similar response. I was just having a little fun. – BioPhysicist Aug 19 '20 at 18:05
• @Yly I didn't say the question should be closed because it leads to bad answers (the term "bad answer" or "bad answers" does not appear anywhere in this post at the moment). I am saying that the questions usually cannot generate a definitive answer should be closed, as this is a Q&A site where we want actual answers to the questions. I understand how this is confusing though, I will edit to clarify. – BioPhysicist Aug 19 '20 at 18:31
• All of your arguments except the last are things you think we shouldn't use as justification for keeping questions open. I disagree with essentially all of your points, but I'll probably write a separate answer to explain why. The last point you make is the only reason you give for actually closing the question, and it boils down to distaste at the phrasing of the question! You are psychoanalyzing the asker and asserting that they don't want to learn physics because of how they worded the question. How is that a good, empirical standard for closing?! – Yly Aug 19 '20 at 18:44
• @Yly You are right. Let me change my wording. But yes, that is how I structured my answer here. The main first part is pointing out flaws in your post as to why questions should remain open. I have tried to give reasoning and examples as to how your arguments fail. And then my second goal here was to give my reason for closing the question. I never said the first part of my answer were reasons for closing this particular question. I will also make that more clear – BioPhysicist Aug 19 '20 at 18:47
• @BioPhysicist I'm not complaining, I'm just pointing out that (even if you don't like my points) I don't think you've given any valid justification for closing the question, which was the main point of this post. – Yly Aug 19 '20 at 18:48
• @Yly I didn't say anything about you complaining, so I am not sure where that is coming from. That is fine. You can think my reasoning is invalid. You obviously will if you think the question should be open. That isn't a fault of my post though. I have given my reasoning. I am more concerned with general site policy though, not this particular question, which is why the majority of my post is just setting straight the misconceptions as to what makes a question on PSE an on topic one. – BioPhysicist Aug 19 '20 at 18:50
• There is a fundamental flaw in your argument in that you are saying we should only leave open questions which are "good" in some abstract sense, and yet you say that "goodness" of a questions should not be assessed based on: Popularity, reception, whether it is within the broader scope of physics, whether it is accessible to a wide audience, whether it is like other questions on this site, or whether it will get good answers. What is left to assess question quality if we accept your assertion that we should not use any of those things? (I do not accept that assertion, FWIW.) – Yly Aug 19 '20 at 18:58
• @Yly I think we are done here. This is the third time (once in a deleted comment) where you have told me I am saying things I have not said. I never said "questions which are good in some abstract sense should stay open". You can disagree with me, but please don't twist my words. I have given examples of where your criteria of "this should be open" can fail and lead to further disregard for the policies. Questions that follow the site policies should stay open. – BioPhysicist Aug 19 '20 at 19:04
• That is why the first part of my question aims to point to where these things that do make questions appealing also lead to disregard of the policies put in place. Additionally, I didn't close the question because I disagree with your points here. I closed the question because of the question, before this meta post was even made. – BioPhysicist Aug 19 '20 at 19:06
• @BioPhysicist (1) I am not twisting your words (I never claimed to be quoting you), I am merely expounding on what they would imply if true. You asked for discussion, right? (2) I can find no policies against this sort of question. You have not proven otherwise, nor even attempted to do so as far as I can tell. (3) If you are tiring of this discussion, I'll be writing an answer of my own for you to look at. – Yly Aug 19 '20 at 19:13
• @Yly That is fine. An answer would be good to help get a clearer picture of what you are thinking. – BioPhysicist Aug 19 '20 at 19:17

Nobel prizes have been awarded for "identifying things" like radiation, argon, the neutron, the CMB, and many others. The distinction between "identifying" and "explaining" is just semantics.

There has never been a Nobel Prize awarded for identifying something. If someone shows you a picture and says "what is that thing called?", you will not get a Prize for answering. You could get one for investigating and explaining the thing in the picture, though.

Now, the criteria for what make a good question on this site are not the same criteria that are used to determine who wins the Nobel Prize, and in fact they're not particularly connected either, but in this case they share a key factor: identifying something does not meet either set of criteria, whereas explaining does. I happen to note that each of the other four questions you linked is asking for an explanation of why something happens in a particular way, which rules out the argument that they are off topic because they're merely asking for something to be identified. However, the question you're complaining about having been closed was asking nothing more than "what is the thing in this picture called?"

That being said, I could see some kinds of identification questions that might be on topic here; for example, asking about a particular piece of experimental equipment might be okay, or asking for something observed in a physics experiment might be okay. Asking about a meteorological phenomenon, though, as in the question referenced, seems firmly out of scope to me.

Just because everything in the universe is subject to the laws of physics does not mean that everything in the universe is on topic for this site.

• The distinction you seem to be making between "identifying" and "explaining" is just a function of whether somebody else has "explained" it before you and/or given it a name. Further, even if you do want to make such a distinction: (1) The post in question does not ask for a name, it asks "what these things are". This could be interpreted as asking for an explanation just as much as asking for a name, though I think this is quibbling either way. (2) The answer not only names the phenomenon, but also gives a quick explanation. – Yly Aug 18 '20 at 7:57
• @Yly Keep in mind that questions shouldn't be judged by their answers/potential answers. – BioPhysicist Aug 19 '20 at 12:17
• I would argue that, to the extent that the question is only asking "what is this?" as opposed to "what is this, and what's the physical phenomena behind this?" (I think it's the latter, but let's grant the former for the sake of argument), then it's basically acting like a reference-request thread, and those can be perfectly on-topic. – Emilio Pisanty Aug 19 '20 at 21:05