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May I ask questions that I know the answer to, but are puzzles? For example, can I ask whether the level of water in a cup of ice water goes up or down while the ice melts? This is a standard conceptual question in introductory physics and I know the answer, but can I ask such things (especially novel examples of this sort of question) just to promote people thinking about it and coming up with solutions?

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    $\begingroup$ -1. Please note that on meta, downvotes basically mean "I don't agree". I basically like puzzle questions for a change, but the focus of this site should be research and not recreation. But a also wish for a place for these things... $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kienzler Nov 2 '10 at 22:40
  • $\begingroup$ I'd suggest sticking to topics that are interesting to research level physicists, not high school students. $\endgroup$ – Michael Pryor Nov 3 '10 at 14:33
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    $\begingroup$ I personally think it's a good idea. I think that it's silly to say that puzzle questions are only interesting to high school students. Questions that are difficult or counter-intuitive can be fun, even when the subject matter is basic, and why do physics (or go to a physics message board) except for for fun? If somebody has a challenging question, even if it isn't relevant at the research level, it can still be fun. $\endgroup$ – ZachMcDargh Nov 4 '10 at 1:11
  • $\begingroup$ @ZachMcDargh: That's right. But assume some Physicist only has a couple of minutes to spend here (as in "my simulation is still running"), they may want to help with a "real" question, but still enjoy a puzzle at home. That's why I would prefer a separate place for puzzles. But OTOH, one could ignore the [puzzle]-tag... Let's see the community's response $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kienzler Nov 4 '10 at 22:48
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    $\begingroup$ What is a 'puzzle'? It's either a physics question or not, so I say yes if it is a good physics question. I dont think your example is a good question, because it is only "puzzling" if you dont know physics. A good puzzle has no immediate line of attack no matter how good you are, and often counter-intuitive results. $\endgroup$ – TROLLHUNTER Feb 13 '11 at 11:45
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    $\begingroup$ I think it is legitimate to ask questions where you know the solution, if there could be other more interesting alternate ways of approach $\endgroup$ – TROLLHUNTER Feb 13 '11 at 11:53
  • $\begingroup$ @kakemonsteret: regarding 'it is only "puzzling" if you dont know physics' (well enough) - does this not apply to some extent to all questions one can possibly ask? Otherwise I agree that one should rather ask questions if one does not know (or is not sure about) the answer. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Grumiller Feb 17 '11 at 11:36
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Note that we had Mechanics around a rail tank wagon which is more or less a puzzle question, but was sufficiently challenging to keep several quite good physicist arguing and muddling their way through before we arrived at an answer that I believe to be correct.

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  • $\begingroup$ That is the point! Such a puzzle or problem can be so simple that "everybody" here yawns, or it can be a challenge. So, the core of this question is: what is the issue of "physics stack"? A community of academic physicists or a forum like "ask aunt Mary", or something in between? $\endgroup$ – Georg Feb 16 '11 at 11:02
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I think puzzles would be great for the site.

"Code golf" questions pop on stackoverflow all the time. These questions challenge users to write code that successfully accomplishes a task in as few characters as possible. For example, Write the shortest program that implements John H. Conway's Game of Life cellular automaton. (Mathematica can do this in 151 characters, amazingly!)

This sort of thing actually can be very educational and interesting. Even seasoned programmers can learn a lot from seeing other people try to work out solutions to problems in novel ways.

Similarly, physicists shouldn't get too haughty and start to believe that they know everything, and certainly not that they know every method. You can learn a lot from seeing how other people approach problems. Mechanics around a rail tank wagon is an excellent example of this.

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    $\begingroup$ Code golf was quite controversial on Stack Overflow for a while, and was eventually given a special remit, but with the opening of codegolf.SE, that seems to be over. The rail car problem is worth bringing up but that is because it is actually quite tricky. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Feb 13 '11 at 6:35
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I'd say no, don't ask a question to which you already know the answer. Not because there's some fundamental problem with doing so, but because if you know the answer to your own question it typically winds up being phrased badly. Also, if you ask something like your example, whether the level of water goes up or down as ice melts, you're going to get answers targeted at someone who legitimately doesn't know what the answer is, and they'll sound condescending.

If you think you know the answer to a problem but you're not entirely convinced, that's a different story, because in that case the real question you're asking is "can anyone provide a more convincing justification for this?" And that's a question you don't know the answer to. Those sorts of things can be decent puzzle questions.

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I think we already have an abundance of people who have clever things to say, whether or not those observations are related in any way to the discussion they are joining. This sort of thing will get out of control if they are encouraged to show their brilliance in the form of a puzzle. For an example where this can lead you can look at this gem.

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I don't think we should encourage questions where the OP already knows the answer, puzzles or not, but I don't see anything wrong with a community wiki question asking for people to submit their favorite physics puzzles.

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    $\begingroup$ On Stack Overflow it is accepted practice to ask a question so that you can post a answer. I find that less destructive than big lists, which attract vote totals far out of proportion to their utility and encourage new users to post yet more big list questions. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Feb 14 '11 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ Have there been all that many big list questions? I guess I also don't understand why large vote totals on big list questions are an issue if they are community wiki. $\endgroup$ – pho Feb 15 '11 at 2:22
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    $\begingroup$ Jeff, not here. Not yet. My argument is based on an assumed scenario. Person with question googles, gets SE link, and follows it to a good answer. In fact they like it so much they look around, decided to join our community, and ask themselves "How can I contribute?". Well, there's a list of the questions ordered by vote total, so they look at it. If more than half of the first page are big list questions (as on Stack Overflow's life), they will quite reasonably conclude that that is the kind of content that makes the place tick. So, we get another poll, and if we close it they complain. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Feb 15 '11 at 3:45
  • $\begingroup$ OK. This is all still new to me, and I'm clearly in the minority here so I'll leave it at that. I'd rather see specific questions anyway. $\endgroup$ – pho Feb 15 '11 at 16:04

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