# Folks, we need to talk about the surface-area-of-a-chicken question

This question

How do I find the approximate surface area of a chicken?

underwent a severe close/reopen yo-yo cycle. It was closed once by a moderator, then reopened by community members, then re-closed by community members, then re-opened again, and then re-closed by community vote again (as a duplicate), and then deleted and subsequently undeleted by community vote. As such, it is clear that there is not a working consensus about this, and we should hash it out on meta before this continues to oscillate.

Is this question on-topic for this site? If yes, why? If not, why not?

Let's form a consensus here and then implement that on the thread itself.

• +1 for a good way to address this issue. Mar 25 at 21:24
• And users who think it should stay open need to explicitly give site policies that allow it to be open. If the only reasons for it to be open are subjective reasons, then the discussion for them needs to be one about why the site policies don't align with their opinions rather than why this question should be open just because they want it to be. Mar 25 at 22:02
• In a symmetric way, users who think it should stay closed need to explicitly refer to site policies that require it to be closed. If the only reasons for it to be closed are subjective reasons, then the discussion for them needs to be one about why they think the site policies align with their opinions rather than why this question should be closed just because they want it to be. Certainly, the judgment that measuring the area of a complex real surface is not physics should be supported by some argument. Mar 26 at 7:07
• @GiorgioP True, although it's easier with closure since you are required to give a closure reason based in site policy already (unless you do a custom reason). I figured if a user said why they closed it's already backed by policy, do I didn't mention it. Out of fairness that's why I put a link in my answer though to back up my position. Mar 26 at 12:03
• @GiorgioP Your answer doesn't give reference to any policies Mar 26 at 12:21
• Fitting clothes to a human does not require knowledge of your surface area. Inseam and waist, neck and arm length, are short ways of quickly getting a reasonable fit for most uses. Mar 26 at 15:01
• @JonCuster those lengths are just data for some formula to find the surface. Old-time taylors and present-time technicians in clothing industry know it very well. The cost of the tissues is directly proportional to the required area. By the way, this is the reason for optimizing the cut of different parts, in order to minimize the unused surface. In any case, this was a funny, but a reasonable reason to propose the problem of estimating the surface area of a flexible and irregular body. Mar 26 at 16:51
• @GiorgioP - There aren't many old-time tailors involved in army uniforms. You get something standardized and close-enough, and tweak to suit you (and your NCO). Mar 26 at 17:06
• Now there is a vote to delete the question, which might be a little too much Mar 28 at 16:22
• Note that popular questions require extra delete votes; the chicken question and its answers do not currently benefit from this extra protection.
– rob Mod
Mar 28 at 20:21
• It should have been closed as a duplicate. That's all. What was notable was the number of downvotes that most of the answers received, which seemed nothing short of petulant and anti-democratic. Apr 1 at 12:30
• @ProfRob What is anti-democratic about downvotes? I would say most answers were of mediocre quality, so they were rightfully downvoted. Why not claim that the upvotes were anti-democratic and more due to the funniness than the quality of the answers? Apr 3 at 22:45
• @NorbetSchuch This is what you said on Mar 26th commenting on one of the answers below: "I think it is appropriate to downvote answers to questions which shouldn't be answered." [in your opinion]. This has nothing to do with low quality or poor physics. There were no critical comments accompanying downvotes to my answers (or several other answers with downvotes) and I dispute that they were of "low quality". May 8 at 10:57

My take on it: No, this question is nowhere near on-topic. It is simply not about physics.

I agree it's a fun question, and that this can make it attractive to some people. But we don't set the site scope depending on whether questions are fun or not $$-$$ the site scope is physics, and questions are judged against that standard.

And the fact of the matter is, there is no physics here. At best, there is a practical-mathematics aspect, but there is really no physics involved. For the people who have voted to reopen: can you explain, in clear and succinct language, how the content of the question is about physics?

As for the fun part, I don't think it's deadly to the post, but it's harmful for the site. (Keep in mind, in Stack Exchange we hate fun.) This thread is what has been termed a "junk-food question" on this meta in the past: it's tasty, sure, but it's bad for the site. It invites a continued stream of activity, which feeds on the fact that the question is ill-defined and as such there is no way to select a unique answer at all (or even to go "oh, there's ten answers already, that probably means that mine would be superfluous). And this activity pushes other, valid, fresher questions out of the front page and the top of search listings.

• <removing mod diamond> "Fun" aside, the question to me is off-topic for any number of reasons -- it's engineering (trying to solve a "practical" problem, for some definition of practical); it's a duplicate of how to measure surface area of a rock question linked to it currently; it's a big list question with many possible answers and no way to choose the best given the fact it's not a real system (so you can't decide what's best in practice). Mar 25 at 21:44
• I've used the analogy before, but just because a question deals with something a physicist might need to do (measure surface area), doesn't mean it belongs here. Physicists need to eat food also, but that doesn't mean cooking questions are on topic here. <replaces mod diamond> Mar 25 at 21:44
• @tpg2114 I do agree with your distinction between physics and engineering. Physics has nothing to do with practical things? I am very surprised. Both physics and engineering have to do with the real world. A difference exists, sometimes sharp, in some cases much fuzzier, but it is related to the different ways and goals to solve real-world problems. Just to make a clear-cut distinction I would say that engineering is polarized towards the most efficient and robust procedure to solve a problem whose solution is known, while physics is more about the discovery of new solutions... Mar 26 at 6:47
• @tpg2114 ... and, according to this classification, the problem of the surface area of a chicken is in the second set. Mar 26 at 6:48
• Keep in mind, in Stack Exchange we hate fun. I think that a careful reading of that link would reveal where the problem is, according to a co-founder of stack-overflow. The reasons are given there are not exactly the same people seem to appreciate in this discussion. Mar 26 at 6:52
• @GiorgioP The distinction between engineering and physics is definitely blurry most of the time, but I think this one definitely falls into the engineering category even if I can't precisely state why. I think there could be (could have been?) interesting questions about metrology or the limitations of measuring surface area accurately or any number of other ways to use the same problem setup that would have been on-topic. But, "How do I measure something to build something" is clearly engineering -- it's the application of physics to solve a problem. Mar 26 at 15:58
• @tpg2114 since in my research activity I have to solve every day problems by applying physics, after a few decades of work, I am learning just now on this site that I was doing engineering. It is amazing to discover how many things we ignore. Mar 26 at 16:54
• @GiorgioP I spend much of my work-life going through an identity crisis depending on who I am talking to... When I'm talking with the engineers, all I can think is "I'm obviously a scientist and not an engineer..." and when I talk to the scientists, all I can think is "Woah, I'm definitely an engineer and not a scientist!" Maybe there's a happy middleground of the physigeneer or enginisicist... Mar 26 at 16:57
• @tpg2114 Well, engineering physics is a field for a reason. Mar 26 at 18:13

Suppose the question had asked “How do I find the approximate volume of an asteroid ?”. I doubt there would be any serious arguments for closing that question. If we are happy to accept a volume/asteroid question then why should we reject a surface area/chicken question ?

• Estimating volume is on-topic for PSE but estimating surface area isn’t ?? But that would be absurd ...
• Questions about asteroids are fine but questions about chickens are forbidden ??? But that would be even more absurd ...
• There is no single definitive answer ? True in both cases - but neither is it the case that “every answer is equally valid”. These are not subjective question. There may be multiple solutions (I can think of at least three for the asteroid question) but these solutions can be evaluated objectively along the dimensions of accuracy, cost, feasibility (“first build a large bath tub ...”) etc.
• This illuminates the problem with thinking "questions about X should/shouldn't be allowed". Site policy says nothing about this (other than that broad necessary condition that the post be about physics). One should not based close/open votes on "a question about X should/shouldn't be allowed"; that's not how it works (or at least should work). Mar 26 at 12:05
• And so far no one has said the reason the question was closed is because it's about a chicken. You're building a straw man argument here. Mar 26 at 12:05
• @BioPhysicist Apologies, I forgot you don't do irony. I have edited my answer to try to make my argument clearer. Mar 26 at 13:39
• I understand your point fine Mar 26 at 13:42
• I think the problem with the post is the nonsensical context, not the question as such ("I want to build a chicken army"), which led to a number to equally nonsensical questions. Mar 26 at 15:46

Disclaimer: I did not give closing or reopening votes for the surface area of the chicken question.

I have to say that this is one of the few times I completely disagree with Emilio Pisanty's opinion, usually so wise and equilibrate.

Let's forget the funny context the question has been asked. The real problem is how to estimate the surface area of the irregular body of a physical object. Why on the earth this is not a problem of physics? I think that everybody knows that questions like "what kind of geometry is the most suitable to describe the physical world" are considered genuine questions of physics at least since the time Gauss tried to measure the sum of the inner angles of a triangle characterized by the positions of the tops of three mountains.

More recently, identification through measurements of the fractal character of a few physical structures has been considered well inside the perimeter of physics. And in many cases, computer simulation in condensed matter faces the problem of estimating, at the molecular level, the surface area of confining walls. Again a problem tackled as a typical physical problem.

Therefore, reasonable arguments against this question should motivate why the problem should not be considered a problem with an answer based on physics. Just saying that ideal surfaces and theory of measurement are mathematical topics is not enough. A real chicken does not live in a Hilbert space and does not eat accumulation points :-)

Also, the argument raised by BioPhysicist seems to be quite weak. Why there should not be a definitive answer? However, his point of view opens a different, more fundamental question: how many questions in physics do have an unambiguous definite answer? It is a big question, but for the purpose of the present discussion, I would say that if we use this argument for the present question, we should close hundreds of existing Q&A on PSE.

After exchanging a few comments, I think I should update my answer, at least to clarify my point of view.

My answer above was mainly focused on the original claim at the beginning of Emilio's answer stressing that the question was not on Physics.

As I said, I did not give a vote on this question. Let me add that I see some elements of weakness in the way it was formulated.

However, my criticisms of the question are based on reasons different from Emilio's concern about its being not about physics. The only real problem with this question is that the requested level of accuracy for the surface area estimate was not clearly indicated. This is probably a signal that, independently on the way the question was formulated, the author was not really interested in having a serious answer. In this respect, I would tend to agree with BioPhysicist's point of view that relevance to physics is a red herring, although the reason I would give for closing would be completely different.

However, if some positive conclusion could come from this exchange of point of views, I think it has made explicit a broad range of opinions about the way to apply site policy. In my opinion this should be taken as a signal either that site policy should be stated more clearly, or (not an exclusive or) that this site policy should be better adapted to the present community. But this is something which should deserve a specific discussion, without distractions like the misterious reason one would need to build an armor for chicken.

• I would say that if we use this argument for the present question, we should close hundreds of existing Q&A on PSE. I completely agree. Many big list questions never get closed even though they should be. Mar 26 at 1:52
• Additionaly, being about physics is not a sufficient condition to be on topic. Mar 26 at 1:55
• @BioPhysicist I agree that being about physics is not a sufficient condition to be on-topic. But then the reason for closing this question cannot be "it is not about physics". Pisanty's argument is mainly based on this assumption. Mar 26 at 6:35
• That's not true. Being about physics is a necessary condition, so that is a valid reason to close a question. However, I do that that point is debatable in this case, as well as irrelevant, which is why I edited my answer earlier to somewhat address that. Mar 26 at 10:58
• Also you say my argument is weak, but so far I'm the only person who has explicitly cited specific policy that has been violated here. Mar 26 at 12:21
• @BioPhysicist I agree that you have been the only one citing specific policy violations. Your arguments should be carefully considered. However, the fact that the starting step in this discussion on meta was the problem if the surface area of chicken is or not about physics should raise a flag about the role of subjective feelings about decisions of closing/reopening. Mar 26 at 13:01
• Asking if a question is about physics is a valid starting point for determining if a question should be closed. However, in this particular case I think it's irrelevant, and I think this point distracts from other, easier points. To be fair, this meta post only asks about if the question should be opened or closed even if it's author made an answer mostly focusing on if this is a physics question. Mar 26 at 13:39
• Very nice edit. I think a separate discussion about site policy if the community thinks that things need to be stated better/adapted could be useful. Mar 26 at 18:06

The issue I take with the question is its nonsensical context ("building a chicken army to conquer the world"). If the question were just about "How do I measure the surface area of an irregular object, e.g. a chicken", it would be fine. However, editing the question this way would make a lot of the answers look odd, since they are answers which in fact try to copy the nonsensical style of the question.

So for questions of this type, my feeling would be: If they can be edited in a way which makes them serious science questions (which is possible), and if this does not make the answers given look pointless (this is not given here), then this question - after editing - would be ok. (Note that and edit attempt of mine got rejected by an admin precisely because of that reason: It would render the answers pointless.)

So unless we are willing to generally allow for questions with a nonsensical context (different discussion, certainly tricky, and not the general policy), I would deem the question in its present form - and answers which only make sense in the context of the present form of the question - off-topic.

So a "minimal" action would be to edit the question to only contain the actual physical point, and delete answers which don't focus on the scientific aspect of the question.

Whether an edited question is still off-topic as it is too broad is a different question.

Yes, the question is on-topic.

Measuring the surface area of an object is either on-topic or it is not. It is absurd to suggest that measuring the surface area of a rock is on-topic, but measuring the surface area of a chicken is not. And it seems to be very well-established that the current duplicate target, How do I experimentally measure the surface area of a rock?, is on-topic. This is despite the fact that the rock question’s answers seem to contain less physics that then chicken question’s answers!

This opinion is based purely on the actual question, and ignores the silly story. Surely the silly story can be edited out of the question, and corresponding silliness in the answers can be edited out as well.

However, the question is ambiguous.

There seems to be a general assumption that this question is about determining the area of material required to cover the chicken. For example, see rob’s comment:

I’m voting to close this question because making clothes for animals is a solved problem that doesn’t really involve any physics.

But that is not what the title says! It just says:

How do I find the approximate surface area of a chicken?

This area could be much larger, if we have a well-defined concept of the surface area of feathers.

The rock question has a similar problem:

The task isn't well-defined. Do you include cracks?

Actually, Myridium‘s comment on the rock question is better:

The answers here are surprisingly terrible. It is a fact that surface area is not well defined. This isn't some pointless pedant statement, it has consequences. Measuring to one hundredth has no meaning behind it. The question cannot be reasonably answered without a specific application in mind, or to compare objects which you know have similar features down to the smallest scale. (e.g. two very similar rocks)

This suggests that both questions should be closed as needing focus or clarity. But the rock question has not been closed, and I do not know why, so I do not know what should happen to this question.

• Unless the question isn't about physics, the topic of the question doesn't determine if it is on topic or off topic. I do agree though that the rock question should have also been closed under the same reasoning in my answer here. Mar 27 at 12:12
• "Measuring the surface area of an object is either on-topic or it is not." I don't know that I agree with that, because the reason why one is measuring surface area dictates the answer. Measuring the surface area to make a suit of armor requires different precision and methods than measuring the wetted surface area of an aircraft for drag calculations, which is distinct still from the surface area of a lumpy object that will be shrink-wrapped, and distinct still from the surface area of a molecule or something. The science needed to approach each is distinct and the limitations are different Mar 27 at 18:26
• @tpg2114 I don't have the points necessary to read the chicken question, but judging from the discussion here a reason was given, he wanted to make armor for his chicken army. If no reason had been given, I would think a comment requesting clarification should be made, and if no clarification is made it should be closed for needing clarity. But I feel the same way about measuring rocks. Actually in this regard, the chicken question is better. Mar 30 at 5:52

Yes
I tend to agree with @GiorgioP that the question is technically about physics. My own answer has involved physics on two levels:

• Archimedes method for measuring volume
• Scaling approach to relating volume and surface

Both clearly make a part of physics.

No
Having said that, I however concede that the question is low-level and is rather about engineering. It was quite okay to have fun for a while, but keeping this question open indefinitely is clearly counterproductive and useless (I doubt that anyone would be searching Physics SE for an answer to exactly this or similar question).

Btw
Another issue that I would like to bring forward is the massive downvoting of the answers to this question. My own answer was upvoted 6 times and downvoted 7 times, and, from observing the question for some time, I have reasons to think that such massive number of downvotes applies not only to my answer.

While I do not think that the moderators could or should do anything about this, I think that:

• it is inappropriate to downvote answers just because you do not like the question
• I think it is appropriate to downvote answers to questions which shouldn't be answered; hopefully this slighly discourages people from answering them in the future. Mar 26 at 15:47
• @NorbertSchuch collective responsibility has no place in science... or, indeed, in a civilized society. Mar 26 at 17:02
• What do you mean? Mar 26 at 17:45
• @NorbertSchuh I mean putting to prison not only the person that speaks against the government, but also those who listened, as is done in some places. Mar 26 at 18:13
• Fair enough, but what does this have to do with me downvoting answers I think should not be there? Note that homework answers are also often deleted upon flagging. Mar 26 at 18:18
• @NorbertSchuh there are clear criteria for diwnvoting. No one can tell people what they should consider a valid question and whether they have a right ti answer. Mar 26 at 19:23
• I don't think I'm telling anyone what to do or not to do when downvoting - at most, I am disapproving what they do from my very personal perspective. I'm not the judge or jury. To put it back into your political analogy (which I think is somewhat off), it is like disapproving, or protesting against, people who protest for something you strongly oppose. They have the right to voice their opinion, I have the right to voice dissaprovement - I think this is how a civilized society should work. Mar 26 at 19:35
• @NirbertSchuh in this case you are protesting against people having opinion differznt from yours. And not simply protesting (by expressing your views in comments or meta) but taking a punitive action. Mar 27 at 6:33
• Downvotes signal disapproval, just as upvotes signal approval. I don't consider them a "penalty", and I don't think they are meant to be that. Mar 27 at 10:53
• @NorbetSchuh in this case the disapproval has nothing to do with the content of the answer. It is scapegoating the others, because you don't like the question. I think we have made a full circle here, so I see no point to continue this discussion. You are free to downvote whatever you want, but I still protest and disapprove such behavior as unethical. Mar 27 at 11:04
• I think this discussion is based on a misunderstanding about my first comment: "I think it is appropriate to downvote answers to questions which shouldn't be answered". This is what I meant, and not "it is ok to downvote if you don't like the question". That's what I do with certain HW answers, and those indeed often get mod-deleted later. I have downvoted a number of answers on this question as well, but not because this question should not be answered, but because from a physics point, they were of mediocre quality and mostly tried to be funny (some were just the former). I think ... Mar 27 at 11:39
• ... they would have deserved the downvote, and got downvotes, also if both question and answer were stripped of their non-scientific part. (I also left a comment under your answer to explain.) For what it's worth, I also upvoted one answer as I felt it was the only one with a good scientific approach, even though it tried to be funny. Mar 27 at 11:40
• @NorbetSchuch I'll recall the "downvote any answer to a question that I think should be closed" next time I see it. The reopen/close mechanism is just fine. Malicious downvoting is not. Apr 1 at 12:27
• @ProfRob I think upvotes/downvotes are interpreted here as peer review, i.e., reflecting the correctness or not of the answer. Malicious or not, they should not be treated as the like/dislike button of social networks. This is my personal opinion. Apr 1 at 12:37
• @ProfRob A downvote can also be used to indicate that a post is not useful to the site. If you think answers to homework questions hurt the site, I think the down vote could be justified using that logic. Apr 1 at 12:56

The question is imprecise in many respects.

Is one looking for an average area or for the area of individual chickens? In my world there’s no chicken army so what other assumptions on the chicken should be made?

How accurate need to be the estimate? Would a typical spherical chicken work (seems like it to me!) or does one need to use an spheroid or ellipsoid chicken? Will the armour cover the legs, the head?

It’s not exactly a match to the rock question since this question is not about measuring the average area of an large collection of rocks, but about a general method for individual rocks.

Finally, I’m not sure what physics is to be learned from this question.

This was mentioned in Emilio's answer, but I wanted to draw attention to it. Especially because the relevance to physics here is a red herring IMO.

The reason I voted to close this question was because there is no definitive answer that can be accepted as the right answer (the OP could actually accept an answer, but that's not the point I'm making here). To cite explicit policy, the page What types of questions should I avoid asking? says to avoid questions "where every answer is equally valid". There are multiple unique methods outlined in the answers that are all (for the most part?) technically correct, but nothing other than the subjective decision of the OP to say whether one answer should be accepted over the other.

In this case I think either side has a good argument about why the question is/isn't about physics, so I think arguing that point further is pointless. The post has other policy issues, one of which I outline above, that are much easier to see and objectively discuss.

If it's a duplicate, then it should be closed. But not because it is a bit silly. As far as I remember, math problems I had to solve in elementary school were not realistic either. However is it a true duplicate? I would not be so sure. It seems people forget chicken have wings and feathers. If this is about area, there is some fractal like complex area to deal with. Chicken can fly and as such this makes an armor difficult to develop by the way.

This seems like a completely legitimate question. It's effectively 'how can I find an accurate surface area of some real world, fairly complex shape'.

Then, requiring an approximate amount of material to cover a certain number of these shapes given that there would be a variance in their exact shape is another layer of complexity.

I don't think the comedic tone in which the question is framed is especially important.

Move to Worldbuilding ?

I would suggest it is more suited to Worldbuilding SE than Physics.

There is no real physics concept here. It's just how do I approximate a surface area of a complex object. This (as someone commented on) is Spherical Cow territory.

Now the question itself related to armor for an army of chickens. I think it would be on topic there. Now that might generate some interesting answers on WB SE, where there is a more creative approach to questions and a broader interpretation of how answers can "spread their wings".

So this would see a situation to move the question to WB SE and see how the folks there react.

• We sometimes suggest Worldbuilding for questions about speculative physics, such as "imagine a world without X" or "please debug my warp drive." But that's not what's happening here. I briefly considered migrating to Arts & Crafts, as you might have gleaned from my initial close reason, but left it here, closed: I think the real purpose of the question was to get the community to debate unrealistic solutions to a straightforward problem. A troll, and we fell for it. I don't think we should migrate it to anyone else.
– rob Mod
Mar 25 at 23:26
• As a Worldbuilding mod, I agree with @rob. I also think that tpg2114's comments also apply to Worldbuilding - it would fall afoul of the "don't migrate crap rule" in the sense that it likely doesn't meet a lot of the standards of any site, scope aside. Mar 26 at 0:10
• @rob Not sure about the troll idea. I'm not claiming this is a particularly useful question here or elsewhere, but having seen a video posted in YouTube with one of those simulated battles between X-things and Y-things I'm pretty sure someone has posted a chicken one. There are video games with weird animal characters and armor for them isn't entirely unreasonable in that context. So troll - maybe, maybe not. Mar 26 at 0:34
• @rob Is that why you made an answer to the question anyway? To feed the troll? Mar 26 at 4:35
• @BioPhysicist The question has currently accumulated 8 close votes (including a binding close vote from me) but 10 reopen votes, even though the answer to this meta question stating "the chicken question is totally not on-topic" currently has 16 upvotes and no downvotes. If the question is going to stay, which seems possible, I want it to have the answer I wrote: a brief practical answer, and a saccharine morality fable about how getting nerd-sniped is a good way to get smart people to lose patience with you.
– rob Mod
Mar 26 at 5:48

Why should measuring a surface area be different from measuring a cross-section area? This cross-section is what particle physicists are very interested in (more often the cross-section is said to be the probability that two particles will collide and react in a certain way). High-energy particle physics is considered even the crown of physics. A huge body of mathematics and theory is devoted to making a model (from which cross-sections can be calculated): the standard model, to be equated with a theory to measure the chickens' volume (with or without the chickens' head). Gigantic machines at CERN are built (to be compared with the equipment to measure the chickens' surface) to measure cross-sections.

• But the post isn't asking about particle cross sections. On-topic posts existing doesn't suddenly save bad questions. Additionaly the post has many other problems. Mar 26 at 12:07
• I admire the dedication you have to this chicken question Mar 28 at 15:15
• @Buraian Yes! I mean, What the F...! How physical can you get.. Indeed, a revolutionary day! And the question about measuring the surface area of an irregular stone (of which it, later on, was considered a duplicate, but the OP didn't know that) was considered to be a "legitimate" question. :-) Mar 28 at 16:51