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I'm new to Physics.SE and StackExchange in general. I've been using the site for several days now and even answered a few questions. By almost any measure though I'm amateur interested in physics but with no particular expertise.

Although I'm not an expert, there are many questions where I think I can provide a nearly complete answer, especially when sophisticated math isn't needed for the answer.

What I'm trying to gauge is how "useful" I can be attempting to answer questions even when I know my answer isn't 100% complete. I can tell some folks don't answer unless the question is in their specific area of expertise and others attempt to answer almost everything, even when their answer is often very incomplete or even slightly wrong.

If I start off answers with "I'm not an expert but..." or "This doesn't completely address your question but..." and then provide links and information for further research will I be providing any value to the community or should I simply not attempt to respond?

Here are three example answers I've provided that demonstrate my non-expert answers:

What would be the effect of an excess of up quarks on stellar formation?

How do you calculate power at the focal point of a mirror?

How do permanent magnets manage to focus field on one side?


So my question is, should non-experts avoid answering unless they can come very close to a complete and correct answer? Or is it considered okay to provide answers similar to the three I linked above?

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  • $\begingroup$ see also: meta.physics.stackexchange.com/questions/1150/… $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Apr 6 '13 at 8:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Manishearth thanks for the link. That's very similar with what I was trying to get at with this question. I couldn't find it via search but I think my keywords were too narrow. $\endgroup$ – Brandon Enright Apr 6 '13 at 8:28
  • $\begingroup$ No problem :) It would be very hard to find that post unless you knew about it, the keywords are all different. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Apr 6 '13 at 8:30
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Fundamentally, the only criterion to use when judging whether you should post an answer is this: can you answer the question asked? If so, then go ahead and post your answer. I know that's a pretty nebulous criterion, but it's kind of hard to define what makes a postable answer to any greater precision, and we don't want to have a complicated set of rules in place that stops people from answering any more than necessary. (For other things, there might be complicated rules, but asking and answering should be pretty straightforward.) Certainly, you don't have to be an expert in the field to post an answer. If your answer isn't correct, you'll probably get downvoted, but otherwise, no harm done. If your answer isn't complete, that's not ideal, but it's still probably okay to post.

I will say this: if all you can do is post a link to a web page that contains the answer, or that would be a starting point for research that would get the OP to the answer, that link doesn't constitute an answer by itself. So if you find a relevant web page, if you can extract and quote or summarize the part that actually answers the question, then do so, but otherwise, that's material for a comment, not an answer. I think the last of the three answers you posted probably falls under this criterion, and thus probably would have been better off as a comment. (But it's accepted now, so no big deal.)

The other two of your answers that you linked are probably fine. Although for the first one, the question seems ill-defined to me and so I personally wouldn't answer it at all until it got edited, but that's just me.

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    $\begingroup$ Despite being nebulous, this actually helps. I know it's a grey area so I'll continue to do my best provide answers where I can and comments when appropriate. $\endgroup$ – Brandon Enright Apr 6 '13 at 8:04

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