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One thing after the recent astrobiology discussion was clear: our policy that "anything on topic on the old astrophysics site is on topic here" seems to be a bit vague and under question.

While the wording does not make it clear, this was the initial meaning behind this policy: "The topics which are allowed on the old astronomy site are on topic here too", with no statement about the other factors (broadness, etc) which can get a question closed.

What are your thoughts on this interpretation? Does it need to be tweaked?

In addition, we might want to review this rather vague-in-retrospect policy and come up with a definitive replacement. Something like "astrophotography, observational astronomy, and astrobiology" are on topic, with a definition for what we count as "astrophotography / etc".

For example, this comment raises a valid point:

+1 for pointing out that this is biology, not physics. Astrobiology deals with things like "What signatures does photosynthesis imprint in planetary spectra?" or "Do we know of any organisms that could withstand the UV radiation in the habitable zone of an M dwarf?" And yes, I'm speaking as an astrophysicist.

A lot of that discussion revolved around the question being astrobiology and thus on topic, however the above point seems to throw a wrench in the works.

Given that such confusions exist, I suggest we come with definitive criteria as to what is considered "on topic astronomy".

Or possibly have a second look at this policy in general, since the "we are an astronomy and physics" site never really took off.

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Note: this answer addresses a previous version of the question, which contained an error that caused me to misinterpret it. It's mostly irrelevant now, but I'm keeping it around because I want to pick up the discussion later, in another post.

I'm not massively in favour of trying to come up with a definition of "on-topic astrobiology". I'd much rather just be a bit more inclusive in general about what we consider on topic. I mean, so what if the only physics input to that question comes from chemistry? Isn't chemistry a sub-field of physics, especially when you're talking about something as basic as the difference between carbon and silicon?

Currently we have this situation where the mantra is, it has to be "about physics" to be on topic. This is said to be defined in the help centre, but it isn't really. All the help centre does is give a list of types of question, each of which is defined in terms of physics. So it's "about physics" if it's on topic, and it's on topic if it's "about physics", and the only way this can really be determined is through a body of vaguely worded case law that's scattered through a thousand meta posts.

I think a far better solution would be to re-think this whole "about physics" business. The quality of questions on this site has dropped massively over the past couple of years, so we're desperately in need of more good ones. I'm not saying that we should be inclusive when it comes to low quality or non-productive questions, but I do think we should lighten up a bit when it comes to the topic of questions. Arbitrarily lopping off whole sub-fields just because some people feel they belong in a different discipline just seems to be shooting ourselves in the foot.

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    $\begingroup$ Remember that astronomy itself (not astrophysics) was tacked on after the merge, and it isn't really working out on this site. And this isn't necessarily about lopping things off. It's about being specific, because extremely vague policies lead to problems. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 9 '14 at 15:05
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    $\begingroup$ I guess I'm saying it would be better to be specie about what isn't allowed than about what is. Is there a specific practical problem with questions of a certain type that requires them to be banned? If so then sure, let's do it. But let's not take it on ourselves to try and give definitions of disciplinary boundaries. Drawing a line down the middle of astrophysics such that some is "on-topic astrophysics" and some isn't seems to benefit no-one but the pedants. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Mar 9 '14 at 16:31
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    $\begingroup$ To put it another way, what would happen if we changed the site's policy to say that a question is on-topic unless it falls into a specific category of questions we've decided we don't want (homework, engineering, software, etc.)? Would we drown under a flood of questions about literary motifs in the Middle Ages? Or would basically nothing change, except that (a) it would be much easier to tell whether a question is on topic, and (b) we occasionally get to answer an interesting question that some might strictly class as a biology one? $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Mar 9 '14 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ (a) this isn't about astrophysics, this is about astronomy, which is something we artificially tacked on to our scope of physics. As it is non-astrophysics astronomy is not as well addressed by our community, I'm not even sure if we can support it well. (b) yes, defining off topic things and not on topic things would be a problem. The astrobiology question was a problem, many people still think that it is off topic, even if not by current policy (because it is either not astrobiology, or something that isn't really physics). $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 9 '14 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ I know many people think it's a problem. I'm asking what that problem actually is. What possible harm could future questions on that topic do to the site? The only argument anyone has given is that it's "not about physics" according to their own personal prejudices, to which my response is "why does that matter?" $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Mar 10 '14 at 1:05
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    $\begingroup$ In case it's bit obvious, I'm objecting to the part if your post where you said "I suggest we come with definitive criteria as to what is considered 'on topic astrophysics'." I fail to see how that "isn't about astrophysics". I've nothing against re-discussing the policies we inherited from Astronomy, but you're the one who brought up this other idea about astrophysics. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Mar 10 '14 at 1:10
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    $\begingroup$ I mean, what possible right can these people have to say that what I do for a living "isn't physics"? It's ridiculous, and if they're allowed to win this argument I will leave the site. But more than that, I just don't see why we need to have the argument (again and again and again) in the first place. Questions about topics related to physics that could arguably be said to lie within other disciplines are few in number and have never caused harm. We waste our energy attacking and defending them, but for what? For a stupid "about physics" rule that's impossible to define and serves no purpose. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Mar 10 '14 at 1:24
  • $\begingroup$ Mea culpa, I substituted astronomy with astrophysics in my post. I do not intend to change anything about our handling of astro-ph, I intended to focus on astronomy. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 10 '14 at 2:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Nathaniel exactly, this question is a reiteration of what we agreed upon as the old astronomy site was merged into physics. Voted therefore to close as a duplicate of the relevant earlier meta discussion, see my comment above. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Mar 10 '14 at 2:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Dilaton yes, it is intended to be a reiteration, holding the discussion in the old meta post won't do. There is a lot of new information now, we know that we have gotten very few astronomy questions since that, plus there is a general "migrate to astronomy" (for non astro-ph) vibe in the comments, plus the vague policy for astronomy we put up during the import. This would get lost in the clutter of the old post. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 10 '14 at 2:21
  • $\begingroup$ When we say a question from a crossover field isn't physics we are not saying that the field isn't. We're saying that the question isn't, and that's different. I've seen biochem questions on Chem which fall into all 3 categories "about biology", "about chemistry" and "both". The problem you may be working on may be a chemistry one, but if you're asking us how a muscle contracts as a biochemist then that is not a biochem question, and more importantly has no chem content (unless you narrow it down to specifically the reaction involved in the re-linking of fibres) $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 10 '14 at 2:24
  • $\begingroup$ (and note, when I say astronomy I am excluding astro-ph, since some do nest it under astronomy. I'm only talking about the imported scope -- not the preexisting scope -- after the astronomy merger. Astrophysics is and will always be a completely on topic topic) $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 10 '14 at 2:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Manishearth thanks for the clarification. If we're not discussing astrophysics here as I thought then I should fall back, regroup and try to start a new discussion about the "about physics" issue another time. But note if all astro-ph is on topic, we still have to answer the question of whether the silicon life question is astrophysics. Even if we were world leading experts we might disagree about that. Such disagreements can never be resolved. The "about physics" criterion is inherently subjective and will always resut in a thousand arbitrary lines drawn in the sand. But we don't need it. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Mar 10 '14 at 2:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Manishearth Actually I would probably agree that that question isn't astrobiology. It's mostly a chemistry question. But it's the fundamental, physicsy end of chemistry where there's a large overlap with physics. It comes down to whether a question becomes off-topic here as soon as it concerns chemical bonds rather than any other kind of electromagnetic interaction; I would say please let's not draw the line there. But anyway. I'll try to put together a post about the "about physics" issue when I have time. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Mar 10 '14 at 3:05
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    $\begingroup$ No, we definitely don't want to draw the line like that. We're okay with stuff like that, and overlap with other sites is never a problem (I'm a Chemistry moderator too, and afaict your example is on topic on both sites) $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 10 '14 at 3:07

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