Many people have tried in one way or another to ask about the mathematical prerequisites to study or understand string theory, but all their (up voted!) question have been and are being closed before they have a chance to get a nice answer.

String theory (and generally large parts of modern fundamental and theoretical physics) is quite a mathematical topic and to understand the physics of it, one obviously has to understand some mathematics too, so the expectation that one should be allowed to ask about the mathematical prerequisites and where one can find good introductory material to get started on a physics site, seems not too unreasonable to me. On the contrary, it would be helpful for many people to hear from physicists already working on the subject about what is needed concerning mathematical prerequisites.

And indeed, people come here to ask about this again, and again...

Closing all these questions before they have a fair chance to get a nice answer is discouraging for people interested in the physics topic itself too and looks not very welcoming to them. (Qmechanic at least left a nice comment that the topic is in principle ok here). Closing all questions asking this is too bad since there is no such question with a nice canonical standard answer here on physics SE, where people interested in the issue could be pointed to.


Could an answer to the question, what are important mathematical prerequisites to understand string theory (which includes some pointers to good introductions) be worked out as an answer to this meta post (since it is obviously not allowed to give an answer directly on the main page), and then be attached to one of the closed questions about this issue by a moderator or another powerful enough user to "migrate" it? Future questions about this issue could then rightly so be closed as duplicates and people interested in the issue pointed to this canonical standard answer.

  • $\begingroup$ I've reverted the edit, it's completely tangential and irrelevant promotion. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Jan 30 '13 at 8:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Manishearth of course is putting the information on an external site a legitimate solution or answer to my question, since it is not allowed to ask about it on Physics SE. But of course, since you are a mod yours is the power to deleted whatever you want ... $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Jan 30 '13 at 12:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Dilaton Anybody could edit your question and remove that, not just mods. And it was tangential because it doesn't deal with your question -- there are probably a bunch of websites that list mathematical requirements for string theory. Any course listing at a university will have math pre-reqs listed. You have several solutions below on how to explain the mathematics needed for string theory. What's wrong with those? Does it not provide the information? $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Jan 30 '13 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ It's something that can be done, of course, but as it's not within the "umbrella" of this site, we don't really care about it. The question is about whether and where this information has a place on Physics SE. Whether other sites choose to include it is their own business, and not really a solution to the "problem" of it not being appropriate on the main site, if you consider that a problem. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jan 30 '13 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 I agree that the question was the wrong place to put it. So I have written it into an answer and Manishearth has deleted that answer too. Deleting my answer is what I disagree with. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Jan 30 '13 at 15:43

It should be definitely allowed to ask such questions. This is a kind of question that works well on stackexchange - where the answers are mostly objective, with a dash subjectiveness that is experience, not opinion.

It might be argued that such a question is too subjective or argumentative. But in that case, a tag wiki would be a even worse place for it, since there you can't comment / vote / post alternatives. Also tag wikis are completely indiscoverable for people who want the information, and give no incentive for contributing to people who have the information as Dilaton pointed out - but thats a different discussion.

I see no harm in allowing questions like:

What math do I need to understand X?

What courses should I take before Y?

The site will not be swamped with millions of such questions. It will not turn into Yahoo Answers. The world will not end, and Mr. Atwood will not seek bloody revenge.

But the site might prove a valuable resource for a young person somewhere who is trying to learn a new field. That should be our main goal when deciding policy - to make the site a most useful resource for physicists and physics students.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for this nice and acceptable answer @jdm, of course I fully agree with this. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton May 12 '13 at 12:53

Information about mathematical prerequisits to study physics topics and subfields should be gathered in a new big list, in the same way as it has been done for useful books at different levels. The two lists should be adequately curated and updated, as new questions are coming in and get answered.

Simultanously, as the (new) information about books and mathematical prerequisits accumulates, it can be smoothly transfered from the two big lists into the corresponding tag wikis.

This solution would avoid the catch-22 problem of the current practice, namely demanding that the tag wikis get DIRECTLY edited whereas all question on the main page asking about books and mathematical prerequisits get closed immediately, no new information about these issues will ever be available to people who need it on this site, because obviously nobody starts to write this information into the tag wikis without being asked to do so.

That information about books and mathematical prerequisits is urgently needed by and very useful to (emerging) physicists can be seen from observing that people come here again and again to ask about it on the main page.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 I am not convinced that putting the book recommendations on tag wikis is a good idea. It's like people here are trying to rebuild a physics wikipedia on the tag wikis. I don't think that's the spirit of this site. The spirit is questions & answers, which is supposed to be a FAST way to obtain and distribute information. I thought the tag-wikis were meant to explain the usage of the tag in a question, instead of containing an explanation of the term. If I want to have a broad overview of something, I go to wikipedia, not to a tag wiki. $\endgroup$ – becko Apr 17 '13 at 1:32
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    $\begingroup$ @becko exactly. Maybe it would help if somebody else than me could start another meta thread such that David Z, Manishearth, etc see that there are indeed many people that see it like this. In addition I think that it is too bad that nobody else dares to reopen a question that David has closed after it was edited. I have flagged your reference request for reopen, but no other moderator has reopend it so far. None of the other moderators reopens it to not reverse something David has done. It would not exactly be a reversal since I have edited the question. Reopen after edit should be usual... $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Apr 17 '13 at 3:20

What about putting the math requirements in the tag wiki? "Study of string theory requires a strong background in X, Y, Z".

It's the same solution that has been presented for what books/journals/papers are good in a field, why not pre-requisites for understanding the subject too?

To clarify the point:

People are asking questions about the math required for string theory. This is off-topic and shouldn't be allowed but it highlights that the tag is missing information.

No tags should be missing information. All of them should have this background material covered so there is no need to ask questions about it. So the people who do know information need to go through and edit the tag wikis, regardless of whether somebody has asked a question about it.

The list of things to include in the tag wiki has already been discussed and this is merely expanding it slightly to include pre-requisite background information.

If somebody who knows a lot about something comes on the site, they should take some time each day to edit a wiki. Just like we ask them to review questions and edits, check the tagging on migrated questions, etc.. So it falls on everybody in the community to take the action needed to populate the tags.

We don't need to wait for somebody to ask about it. We should preemptively fill in the information so nobody has to ask the question to begin with.

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    $\begingroup$ People who come here to ask about math prerequisits (and books), do obviously not have this information, so they can not suggest a meaningful edit to the the tagwiki ... The ones who ask, are not the ones who can put the information there, that would be the answerers. That is why I still disagree with the direct edits. It will never work unless a large campain to get actually the information needed into the tagwikis is successfully launched and put to work. People who possess the information will not put it into tagwikis just like that such that people who need it can retrieve it. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Feb 2 '13 at 10:44
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    $\begingroup$ We have a catch-22 and are stuck with not getting this info at all. Alternatively to start a campain to get the information put into the tagwikis, it could work if the closing moderators consistently leave a message for the people who would have answered, saying that the answers should be written into the tagwikis AND the closed question does not get deleted before the information actually has been put there. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Feb 2 '13 at 10:46
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    $\begingroup$ Otherwise we will keep being stuck with this "getting-no-new-information-about-books-and-mathematical-prerequisits-to-study-s‌​tuff"-paradox we now face forever ... :-/ $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Feb 2 '13 at 10:47
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    $\begingroup$ Even though I am no longer too against putting information about books and mathematical prerequisits FINALLY into tagwikis, I will not accept this answers saying the tagwikis should be edited DIRECTLY and all questions disallowed, until the problem of avoiding the catch-22 I described above, is successuflly resolved instead of being sweeped under the rug. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Feb 2 '13 at 10:51
  • $\begingroup$ I will agree with this answer (and accept it), as soon as a reasonable, practicable, and efficient solution to the problem how information about mathematical prerequisits (and books) can ACTUALLY in finite time be but into the tag wikis, is proposed and accepted by the moderators. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Feb 2 '13 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ @tpq2114 you obviously do not understand the situations we have now. The ones WHO WANT TO KNOW are not identical with the ones WHO KNOW. I did not say the mods should edit the tag wikis but they should allow for a sollution the lets the ones WHO WANT TO KNOW get some the information they need. The catch-22 due to the current policy prevents this. I have discribed some possible ways I can think of in the above comments and in my new answer. But knowbody cares but me and people react even hostil to people who ask about resources they need to seriously and technically study physics. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Feb 2 '13 at 18:29
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    $\begingroup$ The losers of the current bad situations are the people WHO WANT TO KNOW, which is too bad since I once thought this site should be helpful, useful and friendly to people who want to study physics. But to me it seems that everything that counts now is the implementation of new policies and constraints, that often counteract to what people, who want to learn physics on a technical/mathematical level, need and what would be useful to them. Denying people who want to know any possibility to get the information, as it is presently done, is very unwelcoming and drives serious people away. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Feb 2 '13 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton and others. I edited my answer to reflect what I said in the comments and I'm tapping out on the debate. Feel free to ping me if something needs clarification or expansion and I will put down my ideas but they will stand (or fall) on their own, I'm not going to argue in comments on this anymore. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Feb 2 '13 at 19:36

This site is for conceptual questions about physics, and asking what the mathematical prerequisites for something are is not a conceptual physics question. Asking what some particular piece of notation means is fine, as is asking for an explanation of how a particular result is derived (though these questions are sometimes better placed on Math SE), but just a general request for mathematical prerequisites is too broad.

As tpg2114 said, general information about mathematical prerequisites would be just fine in the tag wikis.


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