I question the purpose of some Internet websites which include the present. As a now returning student of physics, admittedly with slower or less remembered skills, I find that the answers offered are most often expressed in the most elegant terms, using techniques of the greatest generality.

Though this practice provides a means for the respondent to make his (or her) erudition plain for all to see, it is not in my view the best teaching practice.

Far more helpful would be to offer answers that use methods that are close to the accomplishments, as may be surmised, of the person asking the question. This would be far more helpful than answers that provide a stage for the respondent to show his/her learning.

  • $\begingroup$ This website might interest you because, although your present interest is in how best to teach physics, that issue overlaps somewhat with how best to teach mathematics. $\endgroup$
    – J.G.
    Apr 6, 2022 at 18:58
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Related: physics.meta.stackexchange.com/q/6682/50583 (since you seem to be complaining that askers might not understand the answers they get) $\endgroup$
    – ACuriousMind Mod
    Apr 6, 2022 at 19:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "I find that the answers offered are most often expressed in the most elegant terms, using techniques of the greatest generality." -- this is the exact opposite of the street rep of physicists. Given those priors, this is an extraordinary claim in need of extraordinary evidence. $\endgroup$
    – user87745
    Apr 7, 2022 at 2:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Showoff ("a stage") is part of the designed-in ego-driven nature of the site, but that is not a purpose in itself. $\endgroup$ Apr 7, 2022 at 17:48

5 Answers 5


Physics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for active researchers, academics and students of physics and astronomy. Users answer questions for two reasons

  1. To supply an answer to the person asking the question

  2. To supply answers to others who come along later wanting to know the answer to the same or similar question.

I wouldn't call this "a stage". Many users here are not using their actual names for their profiles and do not share much about themselves personally. For those who do, I don't think much on PSE gives them anything beyond PSE itself.

This would be far more helpful than answers that provide a stage for the respondent to show his learning.

So you are suggesting more knowledgeable users do not put the best of their knowledge into their answers? Any good answer will get more attention and up votes. That's the point of this site: to find the best answers to the best questions.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ A website may be a stage even when posters are anonymous. The ego may be stroked vicariously. Actors appear on stages even when their names are not listed in the cast. In this case their reputations are enhanced, and they receive various medals. The quick negative reaction I received tells me that I struck a nerve. My criticism applies to websites such as Wikipedia and to others that offer the most general, high flown responses when a simpler answer with further references will do. $\endgroup$
    – user325561
    Apr 6, 2022 at 20:36
  • $\begingroup$ @goedelite I down voted just because I disagree, not because any "nerve was struck". You can think what you want; it doesn't effect me in any way. It sounds like you're taking PSE way more seriously than those you are criticizing do. People ask questions, other people answer them. If you don't like the site then that's fine, there are many other sites on the internet. $\endgroup$ Apr 6, 2022 at 20:57
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @goedelite It's unfortunate you find the way Physics SE works not to your taste, but the issue seems to me that you have a rather dogmatic belief we're all here to stroke our egos. There is no practical way to fix that (either on SE or in your mind) so I don't know what you expect to change with your post. $\endgroup$ Apr 6, 2022 at 22:42

In addition to other points raised, there are some practical issues with fulfilling this request.

  1. It is often difficult to gauge the level of a questioner from the question, unless it is explicitly stated. Even if you can accurately guess someone's "level", everyone has different educational experiences and interests, and an answerer can't know what a questioner does or does not know, given that this is an anonymous internet forum. When answering questions, I try to give the best answer I know how to give to the stated question, without trying too much to guess what I think the person knows (which, in any case, I think runs the risk of being condescending). Of course, if the stated question is firmly within a subject like Newtonian mechanics, I'll stick to arguments in Newtonian mechanics, and if the question states that they want answers with limitations on the mathematical techniques used, I'll try to stick to those those.

  2. The correct answers to many apparently simple questions in physics are technical and nuanced. This is especially true in advanced subjects like QFT and GR. That can cause issues when someone asks a question in those subjects without having studied all of the prerequisite background. Then there is often no hope of giving an answer that is simultaneously correct, satisfying and understandable to the user who asked the question, and shorter than textbook-length.

  3. It is difficult remember what it is like to not know something, especially something you learned a long time ago, and so it's very possible for someone to write an answer that is at too high a level without intending to. This is always a problem in teaching. It is especially pronounced in an online Q&A format, because you type up an answer without getting any non-verbal feedback (stunned silences, confused looks) that would tell you to change course in an in-person interaction. For that matter, you can't even get verbal feedback until the answer is already posted.

For what it is worth, I would consider a comment on an answer that I wrote like "I don't understand the argument you presented, can you pitch it at X level instead?" to be totally reasonable and I would usually try to accommodate to the best of my ability, or at least explain why that is impossible.


I don’t get it.

First you question the purpose of the site. That’s your prerogative of course but it’s like questioning the purpose of patrons going back to the same pub: surely it’s because they like it, irrespective of your own opinion about the establishment. This specific site is objectively doing quite well so there must be sufficiently many people who find the current format to their liking.

Second, if you like an answer, upvote it. If you think an answer is overly sophisticated, then don’t upvote it or downvote it. You can participate in the process of improving the site through votes (positive or negative), so express yourself.

Of course if you don’t like how the site is run because it does not cater to your priorities or you do not like how a subset of people behave, then start a better one.


Though this practice provides a means for the respondent to make his (or her) erudition plain for all to see, it is not in my view the best teaching practice.

Stack Exchange is not a teaching site. Its purpose is not to teach (physics in this case), but to answer a question.

Note that the level of questions and answers on the Physics Stack Exchange site vary wildly, from beginner high school level to a professional/academic level. What may work as a "good" answer to one person may not work for another; what may help one person to understand physics better may not help another.

If you want to learn physics, I would instead direct you to didactic books, that start at whatever level you deem appropriate, and build from there, rather than jumping in at very disconnected points.


The stated purpose of the site is to create library of questions and answers about physics. In practice, the site rewards answers that its members deem 'useful'.

You seem to be asking whether the site should encourage answers that help people develop knowledge in preference to answers that showcase the knowledge of their author. It is down to the community to decide what sort of answers should be encouraged, and they do that by voting for 'useful' answers, so a member of the community who wants to reward answers that follow what you call 'best teaching practice' can do so.

My view is that most physicists are not good communicators, or, rather, they do not write about physics in a way that maximises the chance that other people will find the writing easy to understand. Given that, I tend to reserve my 'useful' votes for answers that are lucid, that explain why rather than focussing on what.


You must log in to answer this question.