I noticed that this question from a new user,

Can I compute the mass of a coin based on the sound of its fall?

went viral, attracting tens of thousands of views and hundreds of votes. The numbers speak for themselves - there is no doubt that the question was a good one, though, of course, questions covering a range of topics and difficulties are desirable. Worryingly, however, our initial responses to the question were rather negative; the question was downvoted to a negative rating and comments indicated that the question was of no value.

Does this not suggest that our response to questions can be too quick and too harsh? Are we too officious/bureaucratic? We initially discouraged one of the most successful questions of all time. Do we need to be more careful?

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ FYI: The votes on this question for the first three days were +14/-1, +47/-1, and +22/-1, respectively, i.e. mainly positive at the end of each day. $\endgroup$
    – Qmechanic Mod
    Jul 5, 2014 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Qmechanic oh dear perhaps my memory is failing me! do you have any more stats? First few hours? I was sure that before I approved an edit it was on -2 with some disparaging comments. $\endgroup$
    – innisfree
    Jul 5, 2014 at 16:07
  • $\begingroup$ but i must be in error, perhaps only the very first downvote and a few initial comments were negative. $\endgroup$
    – innisfree
    Jul 5, 2014 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ But the point in the last para is still valid (to me at least) :) $\endgroup$
    – 299792458
    Jul 5, 2014 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ I too recall a -2, but my guess is that after someone edited the question more clearly, one of the two downvoters changed it to an upvote. Not sure if this can be captured in the history that Qmechanic added above. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle Kanos
    Jul 6, 2014 at 14:55
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos I think you may have hit the nail on the head. I remember it was initially unclear and poorly worded, so I downvoted it. Then I noticed it was edited and reversed my vote. It's probable that others did the same. $\endgroup$
    – Jim
    Jul 7, 2014 at 15:03
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I have to admit that I was tempted to downvote, but then I saw the great answers. Those type of questions give me the sensation of "do the experiment for me", when the OP could try a very basic experiment and ask prossible improvement. Still, some of those questions are really popular, like the Cooling a cup of coffee with a spoon, but others are lost unanswered (like one about a pool cooling). $\endgroup$
    – jinawee
    Jul 9, 2014 at 12:04
  • $\begingroup$ Now the net score is 250, not -2... How majority wins nowadays $\endgroup$ Sep 19, 2015 at 23:09

5 Answers 5


I'm going to echo one of John Rennie's points, but more forcefully. Really it is not a great question. It hit upon a great topic, and allowed for some really great answers, but the question itself does no prior research, nor does it give any indication about what direction the answers should take.

It's phrased like the questions at the top of xkcd: What If posts, but keep in mind the author there plenty of options and only deals with the questions that lead to the most amusing discussion. There is already filtering going on. Because all questions posted here first before downvotes and closevotes, our filtering process is more transparent, but that doesn't mean we're doing any more filtering than any other quality site.

I'll also note my own response to the question. I saw it only after it was edited for grammar, so grammar wasn't even an issue. Even after seeing the answers, I still posted a comment (which has since been nuked), saying something like

It's not clear what you're asking. Do you want an answer based only on theory (which the current answers are telling you is difficult and complicated), or do you want to set up an experiment? If the latter, the answer is trivial if you only have a finite number of coin types and you pre-record the sound each makes.

I still stand by this comment. The OP has never specified if they are seeking a first-principles calculation, or if they're willing to just accept empirical data points. Perhaps the thought is "if I measure just a dime and a quarter, can I infer the acoustic properties of the intermediate coins?" But this was never explicitly stated so we can only guess at the OP's intention.

It may be tempting to jump in and expound on a familiar topic vaguely related to what the OP asked, and maybe that even leads to a great post that reveals lots of nuanced physics. But I for one won't upvote a question that leaves so much guesswork to the answerers. And in my experience, the vast majority of similarly vague questions do not get good answers. We should encourage questions to be good in and of themselves, rather than reward lucky shots in the dark ex post facto. After all, what kind of incentive structure do you want upvotes to induce?

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    $\begingroup$ The net vote is surely a better measure of a question's worth than any physics stack exchange doctrine that might have been written on meta? $\endgroup$
    – innisfree
    Jul 7, 2014 at 6:42
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    $\begingroup$ One of Stack Overflow's early members referred to questions like this as "winning the lottery"; you can easily imagine hundreds of similar questions getting buried, but if you're lucky you'll spark someone's interest and get a great answer that elevates it above the fray and attracts a ton of positive attention. There's nothing wrong with that - as long as folks understand that it's an exception more than the norm. $\endgroup$
    – Shog9
    Jul 8, 2014 at 1:45

I also recall the question went to a net -2 score early on, hence my comment.

I don't think it's any cause for soul searching though. All questions will have some site members who approve and some who don't. It just so happened that the disapprovers were first on the scene this time. It didn't take long for the rest of us to get there and start voting it up.

I think you should bear in mind that it's actually not a great question - it just had some great answers. I think the question's upvotes flatter it a bit. I suspect it's basking in the aura of the upvotes attracted by alemi and Floris' answers.

  • $\begingroup$ Also, there are lots of bad questions that are fun to answer and/or have answers which can be expanded to touch on related issues and be really good. I usually just meh at these, in the end there is some great content in the answers, though I wish it was on a better question :) $\endgroup$ Jul 6, 2014 at 11:08
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, I agree - the question was undoubtedly upvoted in part because the superb answers that it elicited. $\endgroup$
    – innisfree
    Jul 7, 2014 at 6:43

I remember the question having a net -2 score early on as well. The initial question was in broken english, which I suspect added to the early poor reception. I knew the question had potential and was worried it was quickly going to get buried, so I edited the question for english grammar as quick as I could [14:58] and started working on my answer.

It took me a bit to get my initial results, and I had other things going on, so by the time I was ready to post [18:30], Floris had already answered with his first dimensional analysis results [15:05], so I amended my answer a bit in light of his answer and posted it.

From there, Floris and I kept commenting and editing our own posts based on the updates of the other's. I really think the reason we ended up with such a great pair of answers was because we both kept working off each other's improvements.

I think there are a few lessons to draw from the question. The first is that people should try not to judge questions negatively based solely on english grammar, it is easy enough to edit a question if you think it still has potential. The second is that answers can feed off one another and lead to mutual improvement.

In addition, I'll mention that I was afraid the question was going to get closed. I know it wasn't in this case but I was afraid of it nonetheless. One because it was in broken english and I think we can agree that as a whole the site isn't the most friendly towards non native english speakers, and second the question was broad, and I feel the site is a little harsh on broad questions.

I realize I've only been a member for a little while. I've been lurking for quite a while and only recently decided to pull the trigger and start contributing. Just my observations and food for thought.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ ... and you got >3k in 25 days despite losing >1.5k to the rep cap? Welcome to the site! $\endgroup$ Jul 18, 2014 at 18:31

I also recall the question was poorly received - lots of "no it can't be done" comments. Pretty sure it was still in the negative when I wrote my first answer (which I knew was wrong - I just couldn't see where my mistake was. @alemi helpfully pointed out the mistake, and from there on out our answers kept building off each other, and the votes kept coming. See the edit history.)

In this instance the link on Reddit probably helped significantly to make the question go viral, and the upvotes that it generated represent that "the internet" liked this question - more than "the denizens of physics.SE".

I don't have the tools or skills to get at the data, but I suspect that a large number of votes came from new-ish users. Maybe folks who were already regulars on other SE sites and who decided to join just to vote. It would be interesting to see if there was a "membership enrollment blip" in the days after the Reddit cross link.

This episode treminded me of several things:
- there is cool physics all around us
- sometimes you need a nudge to find it
- judge less, encourage more

That said - OP got three gold badges for his question. That qualifies as "winning the lottery" in my books. I had a good time answering it, so I'm not complaining.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "It would be interesting to see if there was a "membership enrollment blip" in the days after the Reddit cross link." There is a lot of noise in that measure in our analytics, so certainty is not available. There may have been a small bump, comparable to the statistical noise. That could be as many as 10 people, but the background level is circa 60 people per week so it is hard to tell. $\endgroup$ Jul 17, 2014 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ @dmckee thanks for looking into this. I suspected that there would be a fair bit of noise on the enrollment data, and you confirm it. $\endgroup$
    – Floris
    Jul 17, 2014 at 21:51

I've read the other answers here, and the comments.

The two authors (Floris & Alemi) of the (excellent) highly voted answers to the original Coin Question have replied here, and I think that they have useful insights. It's interesting that their answers on this meta question are the lowest rated at the time of writing.

Horses for courses

My suspicion is that one person's good question is not another's good question.

For some, a nicely clear unambiguous question is a good one. Ideally one showing the asker's research and a statement of why they couldn't proceed, or their uncertainty.

As a professional software engineer, primarily using Stack Overflow rather than Phy.S.E., these are certainly the kinds of questions that I like to answer and hope to ask. Stack Overflow's How do I ask a good question? covers this.

Regular users are likely to prefer this kind of question. Those working in the field, and the enthusiasts with an interest in Physics that hang about here and get in the way, like me!

However, for others, a simple interesting question with excellent answers that teaches them something, is a good question. Answers that encourage them to feel science is something that they can do, participate in, use, and understand.

Floris's answer mentions a link on Reddit, and I would think this is the kind of question that would appeal to someone happening on the site from a link and having a kind of "popular science" interest.

I suggest that a well written question, in a case like this, might not be as successful as the quick carelessly written one. As a populist pedagogic tool, it might be less likely to pull the masses in, because an outsider, reading a well written question, won't feel that is something that they, personally, would ask.

Is it a problem?

In general, I think that the first kind of question is the better kind, but I think the second kind has its place and use, as it helps provide a fascination with science.

Others may feel differently if they would rather keep Phy.S.E. as a fairly highbrow tool for learning and answering professional queries – I'm not judging that as a bad thing: having relatively uninformed people about can be annoying, particularly if they reduce the signal to noise ratio.

Is this something to worry about? There I'm not sure. Voting is useful because it provide a mechanism to resolve disputes like this where people have different needs and desires.

I wonder if the experienced physicist and teachers here might have a good sense of when a "dumb" question can be a good tool, and so, in a way, becomes a good question. You probably also need a sense of whether it will have popular appeal, which is hard to know.


In summary, I would say that if you want Phy.S.E to be a place that reaches out to the popular science crowd and gives them an insight to what it is to experiment and use science, then support what Alemi and Floris say. Edit questions to improve grammar, spelling and general readability. Go easy on questions that haven't put in the ground work but sound interesting.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't agree with the -1 at all, but I can't give a +1 to offset it because this answer, while well organized and agreeably neutral, feels too digressive from the original question. It is a valid post and I wouldn't want it removed from meta, but I feel like this question may not be the most appropriate place for it $\endgroup$
    – Jim
    Jul 17, 2014 at 13:34
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    $\begingroup$ The difficulty with "if you want Phy.S.E to be a place that reaches out to the popular science crowd" is that this crowd asks a lot of repeated duplicates and doesn't accept that the answer to those questions are the answer to those questions. I have never conceived of physics as a pop-sci site, though we don't discourage fairly basic questions if they are framed in a workman-like way. $\endgroup$ Jul 17, 2014 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ +1 "Edit questions to improve grammar, spelling and general readability. Go easy on questions that haven't put in the ground work but sound interesting." I think this is very important, some people on SE are far too quick to downvote without leaving a reason rather than suggest improvements to the question. Personally I think that's quite a lazy and uncaring thing to do, and it's the kind of thing that scares newer members away from asking questions that might (such as in this case) result in some really good answers that benefit the overall SE community. $\endgroup$
    – Pharap
    Oct 4, 2014 at 4:40

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