I've been meaning to ask about the timeline of discovery of a certain physical phenomenon on the main site, but I thought I should probably ask a more general question here on meta to clear the air:

Would questions on the history of physics be okay to ask?

(That is, presuming of course that the questioner has already looked at Wikipedia and other places, and needs further clarification/explanation).

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ This comment is to alert anyone visiting this thread (who is therefore, presumably, also interested in history-of-physics type questions) that there is now a special site for this kind of questions: History of Science and Mathematics! $\endgroup$
    – Danu
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ [Update concerning ^] - Post the creation of HSM site, this meta post explored the possibility of a re-look at this policy, though the resolution was inconclusive at the time of writing. $\endgroup$
    – 299792458
    Commented Apr 28, 2015 at 6:06

4 Answers 4


I think that questions like "What were some early explanations of [phenomena], and why were they discarded in favor of [later theory]?" are sufficiently focused on physics to be considered. Though there is some risk that the topic will be too broad to be effectively addressed in the Q&A format.

I'm less certain about questions like

  1. What is the source of the appellation "barn" for the unit of nuclear cross-section?
  2. What is the significance and meaning of "Who ordered that?"
  3. Is it true that [Big Name] and [Famous Personality] had a bet about [Theory]? Who took which side? Who won?

This kind of question has little physics content, but they are part of the culture of our discipline.

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    $\begingroup$ Good examples there. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Commented Nov 22, 2010 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ (by which I meant, I think your numbered examples are good examples of "history of physics" questions that are not really about physics and probably shouldn't be asked here.) $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Commented Nov 23, 2010 at 4:44
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    $\begingroup$ dmckee also suggested my question as a good example: Why are quark types known as flavors? $\endgroup$
    – Jaime Soto
    Commented Dec 1, 2010 at 21:07

Hmm... well, physics certainly does have a history, and it's useful to know something about that history, but as a rule, physicists tend not to care about it in the sense that a historian would. That is, the details of when certain experiments were performed or when certain papers were published wind up being less important than the methodology and results of the experiments/papers themselves. So a question that just asks about the dates when certain things happened, or the order in which they happened, is probably off-topic here, but asking about the actual physics work that has been done in a particular area should be fine.

To provide an example (not the greatest), asking "What events constitute the November Revolution?" is not as good of a question as "How did the experiment that discovered the $J/\psi$ meson work?" (Of course both of these are well documented on Wikipedia and elsewhere.) Or, "When was WMAP first proposed?" is not as good as "What made WMAP so much better than previous CMB probes?" (although that last one may actually be more engineering than physics)

I guess it's sort of hard to tell in general. If you wanted a yes-or-no type answer, I'd say just ask the question, maybe with a link to this thread, and we'll see if it gets closed. (I promise not to downvote)

  • $\begingroup$ I disargree in part because history (sic!) proved that the time frame is important. $\endgroup$
    – BandGap
    Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 9:36
  • $\begingroup$ (Unfortunately my edit took to long and now I have to open another coment!) Consider the experiments by Hahn, Meitner and Strassmann discovering nuclear fission. Had they discovered it only a couple of months later the research might not have been published, preventing the developement of the nuclear fisson bomb... So in this special case it might not even be so interesting how exactly they showed fisson but when they did it. $\endgroup$
    – BandGap
    Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 9:43

I recently put up a question about correcting myths in the history of Physics, which was closed, hopefully only temporarily. It referenced a lecture at the KITP, i.e. an audience of physicists.

I also point out that the same sorts of questions are accepted both in Mathoverflow and math.stackexchange and don't seem to do any harm there. I recall many such lectures in the Physics departments of several scientific institutions which were both very interesting and stimulating.

Suppose you are a HS kid or undergraduate somewhere, and wander onto this site. This could be quite helpful.


Perhaps it's unwise of me to re-open an issue that's essentially settled here, but maybe it's relevant again.

Most likely, you've heard of the new site, History of Science and Mathematics. Danu, and LoganM and I are the pro-tem mods, and perhaps we'll admit to a little shameless promoting here and there on questions on various SEs that might be good on HSM. This, however, is not one of those instances.

DavidZ wrote, perhaps eloquently:

as a rule, physicists tend not to care about it in the sense that a historian would.

That may be true. On the flip side, historians tend not to care about it in the sense that a scientist would. In other words, we're in between everybody, although perhaps we've been leaning a little towards the historian side.

Mathematics has long said that history questions are usually on-topic. The same seems to be the case here. I'm not quite sure about how Biology, Chemistry, and Earth Science, etc. are leaning, but it's probably not a huge issue. History has decided that science questions there are absolutely on topic, and we at HSM informally rejected two migrated questions that someone shunted from History to HSM (to the consternation of just about everybody who cared).

There may be questions that are on-topic on HSM that are not on-topic at any of the other science or math sites. For example, take this question:

Why was Evariste Galois killed?

There was a meta discussion on the topic, with the resounding consensus that all questions about historical figures must relate to the work of those figures. A question about whether or not Albert Einstein liked Wiener Schnitzel would clearly be off-topic (and no, I have no idea). This sort of implies that many questions on HSM would be on-topic on the other science sites.

All the same, though, questions that are less geared towards scientific/mathematical concepts and more towards the historical influence are possibly better for HSM.

As a final note: There seems to be a growing trend on Mathematics of people saying that a given question would be good for HSM. This is actually a problem, as there have been a couple cross-posting incidents. I have also noted once or twice that a question here would be good on HSM. Please, do not cross-post on HSM. It gets a bit messy, and is a pain for everyone. If you feel that your question is better on HSM, talk with the moderators here, as well as the pro-tem mods from HSM. I'm sure we can figure out if the question is suitable for migration.


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