So we have a close reason for engineering questions because selection of materials for building that ultralight in the garage are off-topic. But where is the line drawn between engineering and experimental design? The question I'm thinking of specifically is:

Pressure applied to flat plate

Without any context, the asker could be designing a vacuum cleaner and this would be off-topic as an engineering question. Or OP could be setting up a shock-tube experiment, or a low-pressure chamber to study some particles or something, in which case it would be on-topic as an experimental design question.

So without any context, how does one draw the line? Even with context, does the engineering close reason indicate we no longer want questions about building experiments?

  • $\begingroup$ Although on further reading, that question is actually physics and not engineering since it's not asking for help on selecting materials, but rather what governs how a material should be selected (properties, distribution of pressure, etc) so I don't even think it should be closed... $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Feb 26 '14 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ At the blurriest edge, I think context is what makes the final separation. Example: physics.stackexchange.com/questions/100339/… $\endgroup$ – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Feb 26 '14 at 19:23
  • $\begingroup$ Related: meta.physics.stackexchange.com/questions/2948/… $\endgroup$ – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Feb 26 '14 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ @dmckee I agree when the context is clear it's easy to decide, like in the question you linked. But when the context is absent, such as the one I linked in the question, which side do we fall to? I think it might be a judgement call on the application -- could it be used for an experimental setup? Then it should probably be left open, absent other knowledge $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Feb 26 '14 at 19:34
  • $\begingroup$ One thought to chew on: We are not aiming to make this a one stop site for phyics needs. A generic engineering problem, even if a physicist has it, is off topic, but a problem of experimental design that would not come up in an engineering situation (eg, extreme conditions, like David mentioned) should be ok. Also, experimental design is much more than engineering :) $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Feb 27 '14 at 7:09

Hm... after thinking about it, this is rather complicated.

Here's a rule of thumb that might work: physics experiments generally involve some sort of extreme condition that makes normal, everyday materials or building techniques unsuitable. If the question identifies a specific requirement of that type, and displays prior research showing that the OP has verified that normal materials are unsuitable, it should be fine, because the properties of materials under extreme conditions is within the domain of physics.

Also, questions about what materials or building techniques are commonly used in physics experiments, even the more ordinary ones, are fine. In this case the question would have to identify that it is actually about a physics experiment. For example, "what are muon scintillators normally filled with?" would be okay.

Questions which ask how to calculate properties of a material, like the one you linked, are also fine. But the key here is that the question needs to ask how to do the calculation, not just "calculate this for me," for the same reason we don't allow no-effort homework questions.

  • $\begingroup$ I tend to agree with this and the question I mentioned I think fits well within this approach to stay open. It's still accumulating close votes though... so we probably need to see what the other opinions are. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Feb 26 '14 at 20:03

I also think it is valuable to have some place that sometimes posts 'real-life' examples of work physicists are doing outside of academic physics. For example, medical physics, aeronautics, and computer science - which may actually be engineering problems - but may employ more persons that have physics degrees than universities. There are likely students that read here that know better than to flat-out ask "What can I do with a degree in Physics?" but that are very interested in formulating an answer to that.

So a second criterion for including or closing an 'engineering' question might be whether the contribution of a trained physicist is likely necessary for its solution in a real-life situation.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "whether the contribution of a trained physicist is likely necessary for its solution in a real-life situation." I like that. $\endgroup$ – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Sep 14 '14 at 15:10

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