This question is inspired by the following question:

Is it physically possible to convert matter into the electromagnetic spectrum(specifically x-rays)?

The question I put in the title is in part rhetorical, for I am sure that there are many users on this site who would agree with its sentiment, a conclusion I reach from seeing the great deal of loving work many users put into their answers, particularly to answers that are patently almost ridiculously well within the writer's level of competence.

So if people agree that the answer to my question is "yes", then why do people vote to close questions like the one I cited? Is there something in this site's policies that I am overlooking? It's not simply about this question: I cite it only as an example. Let me list what it is about this question that is important for this post:

  1. It bespeaks a reasonably intelligent user with a smattering of knowledge about physical science and who is speculating with this knowledge to reach conclusions that are clearly wrong and patently so to someone with a physics background;
  2. A google or Wikipedia search would not readily show why these conclusions are wrong - at least from the standpoint of a reasonably intelligent person without a physics background;

My cited question is clearly not someone seeking to publish their pet, peer-review-less theory on this site. There are two very fundamental reasons why the answer to the question is no: firstly that (1) we have no way of encoding the complex quantum state of something like a cell or a brain in the interactions between photons, aside from by turning the quantum state into a colossal document and sending it by digital communications and secondly that (2) "quantum teleportation", as I understand it, so far has the highly specific meaning of quantum state transmission from one system to another of the same kind: e.g. atom states are "teleported" to states of the same kind of atoms through entanglement combined with classical information transmission. So there are two key pieces of knowledge here:

  1. An understanding of the idea of state;
  2. A rough knowledge of the kinds of quantum teleportation that are actively researched.

My point here is that it is hard for someone not of a physics background to latch onto these two concepts as search terms for google and Wikipedia. If one looks at the quantum teleportation wiki without a good understanding of QM, I can well imagine that once could read this article and not see any obvious reason why Star Trek teleportation won't work, at least as far as we know.

So, given my title of this question, what is wrong with dispelling someone's ignorance and giving them a few pointers to their future research? Some will find such questions irritating, but surely the dispelling of ignorance that a good answer to this question is a win for science. I despair these days at the lack of scientific literacy throughout society, and this lack is positively dangerous when it underpins appallingly ill informed policy decisions of powerful entities like governments and influential corporations.

So now I'll stop banging on: I guess a reader can guess that I'm pretty passionate about not closing this question and shall keep applying the principles stated in my future reviews. I'll sign of with an exhortation: if a question is not showing obvious laziness, please try (1) to imagine things from the standpoint of someone not as skilled as you in physics and ask yourself the question (2) is an well placed answer a chance to dispel ignorance and further the scientific literacy in our world? before voting to close and repeat my question: what are the main reasons why people do vote to close these questions and how can we better apply the principles of spreading our knowledge around if people agree that such an endeavour is important.

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    $\begingroup$ Before my long hiatus last year, I vigorously close voted such and similar questions, because I then thought that Physics SE should rather be for students, academics, etc who at least know some physics already than for laymen who have really no clue ... But today I no longer do this so vigorously as I dont feel that passionate about the level of the site any more (I skipped the question in question) ;-). The main thing I am still doing is trying to help prevent good questions of people, who seriously want to study physics at a technical level, from getting wrongly closed. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Jan 15 '14 at 11:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Dilaton I agree that it is sad that the "physics overflow" never got up and running - there is certainly a place for both, and hopefully the PO will one day get up. For the time being though, I feel I still learn a great deal on this site so that it would be unfair to vote down questions just simply because I don't find them useful. I agree also the closing of excellent questions makes me raise my eyebrows a bit. So this is a further good point in being sparing on voting to close: as someone who estimates it takes me 20 readings of a paper to grasp it, I am very relunctant to vote to close .. $\endgroup$ – Selene Routley Jan 15 '14 at 11:56
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    $\begingroup$ .. most things (aside from the really obvious lazy "what's the answer to this, I can't be bothered googling" questions) given that there is a pretty high likelihood that there's a subtlety that has slipped past me. $\endgroup$ – Selene Routley Jan 15 '14 at 11:58
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, I did not donwvote either (and I can not say leave open any more as i skipped) ... We are still working on the PhysicsOverflow to be, and indeed thanks to the nice informatics specialist that supports us, we are not too far away from starting some kind of "technical private beta" on a real host to get rid of the worst technical stumble stones, bugs etc rather soon ;-). I will call for participiants here and probably on Quora too. Cheers $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Jan 15 '14 at 12:12
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    $\begingroup$ @WetSavannaAnimalakaRodVance I would point out that the tooltip for a downvote says "This question...is unclear or not useful." So it's not unfair to downvote questions which are not useful; on the contrary, it's practically necessary to maintain the quality of the site. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jan 15 '14 at 15:43
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    $\begingroup$ there was a physicsoverflow proposal? Upvote! $\endgroup$ – bright-star Jan 17 '14 at 8:44
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    $\begingroup$ I'm all for being inclusive, but I have to say that the rude comment on that question, that the OP is living in a different world, is actually accurate. "in real life, teleportation is possible…" – that's a claim that a Google search can easily show to be unsubstantiated. The feeling this leaves me with is that the poster makes so many assumptions that a simple answer won't help him. $\endgroup$ – A. Donda Jan 20 '14 at 14:32

Is it part of this site's charter to dispel ignorance and raise awareness of science?

No, not really.

What is part of this site's charter (not that we officially have a charter) is to provide a platform for people to ask expert-level physics questions and provide high-quality answers to those questions. If, in the process of doing that, we happen to dispel ignorance and raise awareness of science, then sure, that's a nice side effect. But it's not our primary mission.

In particular, we generally expect askers to have enough of a background in physics that they can ask questions in a way which is meaningful to experts, and understand the answers. While the asker of the question about converting matter into EM waves or whatever may be intelligent, they clearly don't have the level of familiarity with physics that is required to ask about this topic and understand the answers they'd be likely to get. As a consequence, the question is highly unlikely to be useful to future visitors (I'm talking about people with some physics knowledge), which makes it not a good fit here.

There are plenty of other physics Q&A sites, like Physics Forums, that can more readily cater to layperson questions. We distinguish ourselves by trying to operate at a slightly higher level.

By the way, note that when I say "expert level" I'm not saying one must be e.g. a grad student or above to ask a question here. As I said, it's about having an appropriate level of understanding of physics to pose a meaningful question and understand the answers. It is possible to do this as a beginning student of physics.

  • $\begingroup$ If I believe this post contains opinion and I disagree with it, is it appropriate to downvote? This would make the little number there reflect more accurately an average reader's perception of the validity of the answer, but I'm not sure that's the function of that number on meta SE. I'm not trying to be passive aggressive, I actually don't know if it's appropriate to downvote for that reason on meta. On regular SE, a downvote expresses poor quality of research, lack of effort, or falsity. This answer has none of those, but I believe its premise is flawed. $\endgroup$ – Void Star Jan 16 '14 at 5:59
  • $\begingroup$ To be clear, I think the cited case is an example of too little effort, but I think there are other instances where a person asks a question from a position of ignorance, and it appears to be a bad question, while, in actuality, they just have not enough knowledge on the subject to ask a more advanced question, and a site of experts like this would spare them from misinformation elsewhere. SE is very unforgiving in these cases, more experienced users are often rude, and the OP's intelligence gets insulted. Clearly SE needs to be more open to "entry level" questions, at least in my book. $\endgroup$ – Void Star Jan 16 '14 at 6:05
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    $\begingroup$ On meta sites, votes can indicate agreement or disagreement. That being said, I would counter with the observation that there's no inherent obligation for a community to cater to everybody who is interested in its topic. If someone steps into a community where they are far removed from the target demographic, it's going to be unforgiving and they are going to feel out of place. Doesn't mean you automatically blame the community. (Like if a first-year physics student who has studied only Newtonian mechanics and E&M attends a grad-level QFT class.) $\endgroup$ – David Z Jan 16 '14 at 6:10
  • $\begingroup$ (cont.) So I'd argue that it is not in fact clear that SE needs to be open to entry level questions. (I'm assuming by "entry level" you mean something other than questions on simple topics.) However: rudeness is not tolerated here. You should flag it for removal as you see it. Don't confuse rudeness with directness, though. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jan 16 '14 at 6:12
  • $\begingroup$ Experienced members on this site are stewards of knowledge, clearly willing to share their experience. It has been observed of ideas that they spread freely, with no harm done to the person who shares; only good can come of education. There is no reason not to answer these questions, so long as they show a minimum of effort put forward. Not doing so makes SE an exclusive club for people in the know. That is extremely unfair to people trying to bootstrap themselves into a subject. $\endgroup$ – Void Star Jan 16 '14 at 6:29
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    $\begingroup$ It's not true, though, that no harm is done to the person who shares. Education takes a significant amount of time and effort on the part of the educators, and that is significantly more when we are getting large numbers of badly prepared or non-insightful questions. We've had experienced members leave this site for precisely that reason. That's why we do want to be an exclusive club for people who are "in the know" enough to ask good questions. This is the distinction between SE sites and other Q&A sites: we actively try to exclude the bad content rather than staying open to everything. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jan 16 '14 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Bigen: First, READ THE FAQ (duh). It clearly describes what meta votes mean. Briefly, upvotes mean agreement. Downvotes mean disagreement, not that you are the only living brain donor, imlications about your mother and the 6th fleet, and that you torture small furry animals in your spare time, as they do on the main site. $\endgroup$ – Olin Lathrop Jan 18 '14 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ Wow, that is really harsh. Perhaps a downvote simply implies the question or answer was poorly researched. This is the kind of disrespect I'm talking about. I think David Z has made his argument well, and he's actually convinced me with his viewpoint, but this attitude SE culture seems to promote (i.e. bad answers come from idiots, bastards, and sociopaths, if I interpret you correctly) is severely unhealthy to the community. So, I stand corrected, but I still think we should treat people with a minimum of respect. $\endgroup$ – Void Star Jan 18 '14 at 20:23

I'm not sure that the site has or needs a charter, but the site content is what we the site users choose it to be. I suppose SE would have the sanction of closing the site if they wanted, but aside from such nuclear sanctions we decide what goes hereabouts (anyone who disagrees should hurry up and get enough rep to vote me down :-).

My own view is that education, encouragement and indeed making Physics exciting is an important part of this site - I wish a site like this had been available to me when I was a spotty youth back in the seventies! All we had was Horizon and the occasional James Burke documentary. If I spot a question that looks like one I might have asked as a 14 year old I will look hard to see if it can be answered usefully, even if it's a naive question.

But I do sympathise with David's position when he says:

In particular, we generally expect askers to have enough of a background in physics that they can ask questions in a way which is meaningful to experts, and understand the answers.


There are plenty of other physics Q&A sites, like Physics Forums, that can more readily cater to layperson questions. We distinguish ourselves by trying to operate at a slightly higher level.

This isn't a blog site - it's a question and answer site. If a question is so poorly phrased that it needs an expository essay to answer it then that isn't a question we should be addressing here. Furthermore I will only answer a naive question if I can do so in a way that is rigorous and not misleading. We do no-one any favours by (to take a silly example) claiming that General Relativity can be explained with a rubber sheet.

I'm not sure it's fair to single out questions, but the question that sparked this discussion basically amounts to Can we build a Star Trek type transporter?. Although I couldn't bring myself to vote to close, I don't think we can usefully answer that question here. I don't see that linking to quantum teleportation addresses more than a fraction of the question. You'd need a huge answer to really do the question justice, and that's not appropriate for this site. So I don't have any problems with the question being closed.


In this particular case, I think the only thing that was done wrong was not linking the OP to the multiple questions about quantum teleportation and instead voting to close it as off-topic:

And so on. Surely these would have dispelled the ignorance and raised awareness of science to the OP and the future readers, right?

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    $\begingroup$ Someone want to explain the downvote? What's to disagree with here? That the question is not a duplicate? That the other questions wouldn't have dispelled ignorance? $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Jan 15 '14 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ I didn't downvote, but the reason might be that your answer doesn't answer the question. The question is about the general case. $\endgroup$ – Brian Moths Jan 16 '14 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ @NowIGetToLearnWhatAHeadIs: Generally, the downvotes on Meta mean "I disagree with this" and not "This is wrong" as it is on the main page. Moreover, the OP is flagged as discussion and yet no one seems to be willing to discuss what is to disagree on my answer. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Jan 16 '14 at 14:19

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