My question was closed as being off-topic:

But I'm struggling to think of why this isn't an obvious physics question. I wanted to know why some physical systems demonstrate some physical behavior?

In the accepted answer on the meta question linked-to in the 'your question was closed' notification it is written:

Similarly, questions like What really allows airplanes to fly? that ask how a man-made system works are also on topic, as long as they aren't too broad.

Maybe the problem is that, because I'm asking about a 'side effect' or 'downside' of some "man-made system", I'm suspected of 'really' asking about how to solve or mitigate that effect? That seems like a possible explanation for why the first comment, by a user with a good amount of reputation on this site, thinks that this question would be a better fit on the Home Improvement Stack Exchange site. That's confusing as that SE site is, according to its own info:

... a question and answer site for contractors and serious DIYers. The core of this site is around parts of your home that are typically included when you buy or sell it, the structure, utilities, and major appliances.

My 'concern' with editing my question to be a 'spherical cow' version of itself is that that would then be "too broad".

(It's of course possible that, like all SE sites, there is in fact no consistent rule applied to all questions and determining whether they're on-topic.)

What specifically is wrong with my question as it is?

Does it just seem like a thinly veiled 'engineering' question? Must I just accept that there's now no way for the question to escape this judgement? Should I now give up on asking questions here too given that forever more I will be suspected of 'really' asking engineering questions?

Are my links themselves suspicious? I included them because they were the inspiration for my question – not because I'm maliciously trying to get physicists or physics enthusiasts to nefariously engage in engineering.

This similar meta question, and its accepted answer, lead me to think that my question was closed because it seems like 'engineering' and thus is so 'trivial' that it should be field by "contractors and serious DIYers":

I do appreciate that the question is probably very similar to questions that really are off-topic. How should I edit my question so that it's obviously on-topic?

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    $\begingroup$ When I saw your question last week, I thought that (a) it was an interesting physics question about an engineered object, (b) which taught me that water’s phase-change properties are a design feature in some fire safes, and (c) which was probably going to accumulate close-votes with the engineering-like reason, even though (d) my personal preference would be that our site had more questions like it. I’m not ready to use my moderator superpower to unilaterally reopen the question, but I would be totally happy if it were reopened unchanged. We’ll see how the community’s discussion develops here. $\endgroup$
    – rob Mod
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ I kind of saw it as a mix of engineering and chemistry. The principle is the same as drywall, which uses gypsum, a hydrite, as the water storage medium. Driving off the water takes lots of energy. Thus drywall is considered a fire barrier. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 22:19
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    $\begingroup$ @JonCuster Hmm – your comment makes me think that there's no practical way to ask about the physics of some things then (on this site). If anything, it now seems more odd why the What really allows airplanes to fly? question wasn't closed for the same reason as my own. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 23:16
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    $\begingroup$ @rob "water’s phase-change properties are a design feature in some fire safes" is the kind of detail I was hoping for when I asked my question! I've been a much more frequent user of SO for years now and it sadly suffers from the same kind of simultaneously overly-zealous and overly-lax moderation, and that's extremely frustrating for users on the 'losing' end of said moderation, even if it's all the result of "distributed hypocrisy" because of the need to rely on individual moderators. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 23:22
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    $\begingroup$ I think that the review is a bit misleading. The point of concern is condensation. It does not really matter if the air inside get more humid, the point is condensation. A reiteration of condensation / evaporation cycles can wash out an indefinite amount of ink, just to say. By this point of view a very tight safe is worse than a leaking one, but only if closed in a day with high absolute humidity. $\endgroup$
    – Alchimista
    Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 14:57
  • $\begingroup$ Wrong place sorry ^ $\endgroup$
    – Alchimista
    Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Alchimista Yeah – that'd be a great comment on the original question, or expanded somewhat and posted as an answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 17:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Kenny Evitt posted as a comment there. $\endgroup$
    – Alchimista
    Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 17:32
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    $\begingroup$ IMO the main issue with the "airplane flying" question is that it starts from the nonsense assumption (widely made on web sites either purporting to explain flight, or purporting to prove that classical physics is nonsense because it doesn't explain flight!) of equal transit times for flow above and below the wing. That assumption is neither physics nor engineering. $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ I'm trying to distinguish this question from this other recent refrigerator door question - and can't. That was a good question. This is a good question. (IMO as a long-time lurker, notwithstanding my 101 affiliation rep.) $\endgroup$
    – davidbak
    Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 0:22
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    $\begingroup$ For what it's worth, my initial comment pointing you towards Home Improvement was largely because I thought that the folks over there would be more likely to be able to answer the question, and I suspected that you wouldn't get much in the way of good answers here. That said, I appear to have been wrong, because tom10's answer seems pretty solid. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 14:26
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelSeifert Asking why some thing that, yes, is often found in homes, works (or 'doesn't work') in some particular way seems entirely off-topic for the Home Improvement site. Are you pattern matching on the 'home' part and ignoring the 'improvement' aspect? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ There appear to be several examples of questions on Home Improvement that deal with the "physics" of household objects — this recent one, for example. So it's not clear to me that it would obviously be off-topic. In any event, my suggestion was more meant along the lines of "if you don't get a good answer here, you might try this other board." $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 16:26
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelSeifert That seems like an okay question, but then it seems like it would be totally fine to ask here too: "I'm really curious about the physics of this.". Your third sentence explains the charitable interpretation I was missing. I thought you were justifying a close vote! I'm sorry for not even considering your comment in that light. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 9, 2021 at 15:41

1 Answer 1


Short version, i think the burden is in the wrong place,as described

I'm in favour of such questions. SE can often come across to the inexperienced as closing questions that the OP feels do really match the site's criteria, and physics SE isn't likely to be an exception.

The assumption that this is a solution-seeking question in disguise feels like bad faith and narrow preconception what someone might ask that's physics, and we shouldn't require "just so" perfect wording and jumping hoops, for the privilege of asking an interesting question.

If anything, its more experienced users who should be expected to show versatility if there's a possibility its valid - checking assumptions, being welcoming, and so on. Not newcomers and the unfamiliar or inexperienced.

I'd therefore rephrase this (meta) question, that its for experienced users to address the matter, not for the OP to be told in effect "I assume you're asking a question you may not be asking, and if you want to convince me otherwise you have to do hoop-jumping and reword it just so. Kthx". That's just lazy.

Yes asking clarifiers is extra work. So is rewording an OP to meet seemingly-opaque demands. Who is best placed for extra work, and least likely to be deterred - a newcomer, or an experienced user who knows what its about?

In finishing, here are some useful ways to handle it or indeed answer it, that don't place undue demands on the OP:

This sounds like you may be asking for engineering solutions and answers. If you are, then practical questions about how a device is made, can be asked on Engineering SE. I will limit my answer to the aspects of your question suitable for Physics SE, namely [whatever]. If you did have a different physics question, please edit your post to be clearer, thanks.

In this approach, the user is given a clear distinction that some aspects belong on another SE. The OP feels welcome, the valid physics point is answered by stating what it's seen as being (not by demanding "figure a better wording"), and if its not helpful, they'll edit or otherwise clarify by further comments anyway.


See How far could you see from an airplane at 35,000 feet? for an example of exactly this, today. A user asks about a flat earth video that purports to show Baja California when its below the horizon. They sound sceptical and looking for scientific understanding what they have missed. They state they have tried horizon calculators but they don't help, could refraction cause the effect. Comment 6 to the OP states that the question should be closed because we don't handle "looney videos", but the user is genuinely after a physics based understanding whether optical illusion or other refractive effect could be the reason - and I feel when it comes to refraction as a hypothetical scientific explanation for someone else's claimed optical observations, that's fairly and squarely a question we can and should be able to handle here (my comment 8 to OP)

  • $\begingroup$ I disagree with "If anything, its more experienced users who should be expected to show versatility if there's a possibility its valid - checking assumptions, being welcoming, and so on. Not newcomers and the unfamiliar or inexperienced." The onus is on the OP to make sure the site rules are followed. Extreme example: you don't expect experienced drivers to constantly check if the assumptions about light signals are to be followed by less experienced drivers. Now I agree in this case it's not such a cut-and-dry engineering question, but it does depend on designs, materials etc. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ @ZeroTheHero I don't understand why we should exclude from 'physics' answers to questions about "designs, materials etc.". Does physics not cover any of those considerations? Of course it does! Why can't we give our spherical cows a specific kind or degree of, e.g. thermal conductivity, in our questions? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 12, 2021 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ @ZeroTheHero I don't think thinking along the lines of "The onus is on the OP to make sure the site rules are followed." is helpful. What are we all doing here on this site? Asking and answering physics questions. I explicitly asked about the physics of a generic category of engineered artifacts. That seems like a perfectly good physics question. It could be that a perfect answer is 'It depends on too many details of the artifacts in this category to write a concise-enough answer for this site.'. Or some kind of summary or overview might be possible. Or the answer could be simple. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 12, 2021 at 17:55
  • $\begingroup$ @ZeroTheHero As someone that's answered, edited, and reviewed lots of questions on various SE sites for years now, I understand the almost adversarial mindset that's pretty natural after drowning in the deluge of bad questions. I think the antidote is just to take a break! But almost every question could be salvaged (and maybe then closed as a duplicate). Some questions definitely can and should be closed, e.g. spam. But a problem, or what feels like a problem to a lot of people, is that there are no clear consistent rules, on any of the SE sites. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 12, 2021 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ @ZeroTheHero It is up to every user, especially the more experienced users, to check their own assumptions. A particular concern here is situations where there is absolutely nothing wrong with the question, but other users manage to misread it anyway. As far as I can tell, this is what happened with the “fireproof safes” question: there is absolutely nothing in this question that suggests the OP is looking for a practical fix. Surely you are not suggesting that this is still the OP’s responsibility! $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 7:01
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianDrake your premise that there was nothing wrong with the question was obviously not the opinion of those 5 who chose to VTC. Yet the system works: a case (maybe even a “fireproof” case) was made that the decision was possibly unwise and the question was re-opened. So in my mind the moderation and feedback processes worked through and through. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 13:51
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    $\begingroup$ Now let's have them work better, so the VTC isn't necessary and a user wasn't at risk of being deterred because their question was not understood as a physics question by no less than 5 experienced users. Which is incomprehensible to me, fwiw. $\endgroup$
    – Stilez
    Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Stilez people have been thinking about this for a while...I mean: there’s no easy fix except for a determined user to edit the question or ask for clarification - and too often they do neither. There are some cases of excessive zealousness but on balance they are rare and one should avoid focusing on a few borderline cases which can always be fixed if the OP is willing to actually fix the questions. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 2:37
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    $\begingroup$ Reluctantly, that doesn't wash for me. The easy fix is, if there's actually a physics question indicated by the question, then dont VTC - instead, answer it. Easy as that. I've suggested by example how to do it ("I'm focusing on X which is a physics question, if you mean Y that belongs on whatever other SE site, please clarify if you need to").. Its not demanding. But I think you're apologising for an actual occasional problem - its just a few cases of excess zeal, its rare, its just a few borderline ones. It seems dubious VTC isn't just borderline or rare to me. $\endgroup$
    – Stilez
    Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 2:45
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    $\begingroup$ .. well, not that rare that we can just say "its too minor and rare to try for better. That directly translates to friendly feel, and visitor enjoyment, and community gain, over tom. $\endgroup$
    – Stilez
    Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 2:46
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    $\begingroup$ @ZeroTheHero The system came to a ridiculous collective decision, created a lot of confusion and potentially drove away users (the OP, anyone else watching this situation, and anyone involved in a similar situation). Oh, but it is all OK, because the decision was eventually overturned! The system worked perfectly! I cannot understand this reasoning at all. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 8:26
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    $\begingroup$ @ZeroTheHero You previously commented: “I objected (and still do) to the idea that the more experienced users should be doing the checking - it's clearly the job of the OP.” I maintain that there is (and was) nothing wrong with the question – and I justified this claim by saying that there is nothing in the question (including previous revisions) that suggests the OP is looking for a practical fix. So what was the OP’s job here? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 8:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Stilez I agree that some individual VTC may appear suspicious, but when there are 5 of them, it usually denotes a problem with the question. It’s not perfect and there are legitimate questions that are closed. Where we will have to agree to disagree is that the fix of reopening the question takes too long. Yes it takes patience on the part of an OP, but that’s that. There is also the occasion to fix the question while close votes are accumulating. Again, not perfect but generally works. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 13:39
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    $\begingroup$ I have to disagree. This was not in fact an example of a well working system, bjt an example of a poorly working one. Because in this case as we can agree (or see in hindsight), 1) there were fairly clearly, physics questions, and 2) fairly clearly not looking for engineering solutions, and 3) a physics aspect was easy to find and respond to..... and yet 5 of our experienced users missed all 3 of those points, and VTC...a response that heavily deters users and feels like SE missed the point. Which indeed it did, and does. $\endgroup$
    – Stilez
    Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ @KennyEvitt I will not deny that some bad calls are made, but I would be careful about generalizing on the basis of one example. My experience is that (at least in this forum) most of the more senior users with VTC rights are quite reasonable and open-minded to allow questions to be reopened when the situation is clarified. I say "most" here but I actually do not personally know of any unreasonable persons, but I dare not say "all". $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 17:40

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