... obviously to answer simple questions about everyday life:

Why are dishwasher washed glasses "squeaky clean"?

Not that I wish to be ungrateful, but I put far more effort, and found it far more interesting, to write an answer explaining where the idea that black holes are gateways to other universes originated, and that answer has so far scored just a single upvote1.

I guess that as the site attracts a wider audience the answers that get the most upvotes are going to be the simple ones that everyone can understand. It does detract a bit from the usefulness of the reputation system though.

Response to NikolajK's comment:

The very nature of StackOverflow's structure has it such that only those who answer simple questions of the most popular programming languages will get a reward.

If the reward for participating in the Physics SE is just the rep points you get then, well, each to his own but I think this is a poor way to approach the Physics SE and probably life in general. Yes I'm a bit frustrated that what I consider my better answers don't attract as much attention as the more obvious ones (people just don't appreciate my genius) but that isn't going to drive me off the Physics SE.

Lots of people around here put lots of effort in for effectively no reward, and the moderators not only get no reward but have to put up with criticism every time someone disagrees with their actions.

And long may it remain so. As long as the world is a better place with the Physics SE than it would be without it then you can count me in.

Of course, that isn't going to stop me moaning :-)

1 which could of course just mean it's a crap answer :-)

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure what to say except "...yep." $\endgroup$ – David Z Nov 26 '14 at 12:20
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    $\begingroup$ "The very nature of StackOverflow's structure has it such that only those who answer simple questions of the most popular programming languages will get a reward." $\endgroup$ – Nikolaj-K Nov 26 '14 at 12:27
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    $\begingroup$ Is there a question/discussion topic here, or do we just all sagely nod to this? ;) $\endgroup$ – ACuriousMind Nov 26 '14 at 13:00
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    $\begingroup$ @ACuriousMind: it was really just a frustrated outburst. I feel better now :-) $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Nov 26 '14 at 13:01
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    $\begingroup$ I hope you weren't implying that I'm out for reputation. I was mostly just linking you to that StackOverflow blog where one high rep user lays out the issue in length for you. You write "as the site attracts a wider audience", but come on, it has been like that for years. $\endgroup$ – Nikolaj-K Nov 26 '14 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ Bonus: The secret to getting a massive reputation is... well on StackExchange Math, it's well established that you can get to 50++ votes by starting your thread with "My 7 year old daughter has noticed that... and asked me..." $\endgroup$ – Nikolaj-K Nov 26 '14 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ It's not that us mere mortals don't appreciate your genious, it's that we have no way to judge it. Basically, it takes a expert to upvote a expert answer because everyone else can't tell the difference between brilliant and bullshit. $\endgroup$ – Olin Lathrop Nov 26 '14 at 14:13
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    $\begingroup$ Yes I'm a bit frustrated that what I consider my better answers don't attract as much attention as the more obvious ones I think this is the case for most of us answerers. There's a few 1-vote answers I've got that I thought were amazingly great answers, yet it takes a Big Rocket question to blow up my rep. ::shrug:: $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Nov 26 '14 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ Personally, I enjoy reading your answers as they're very well written. I appreciate your sense of humor and you clearly know what your talking about. I was actually surprised to see that you'd answered the linked question about washing glasses in a dishwasher but I enjoyed that answer as well. $\endgroup$ – Michael McGriff Nov 26 '14 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelMcGriff: I worked for Unilever as a colloid scientist for 12 years, so I'm unbeatable on any questions involving soap, washing powder, shampoo, etc. General relativity is much more fun though :-) $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Nov 27 '14 at 7:22
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    $\begingroup$ I'd say stop answering these questions and write more about black holes and such. I always up vote your answers to difficult questions. The others I don't read. $\endgroup$ – MBN Nov 27 '14 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ My "goal" on Stackexchange is to produce answers that when I look back on them, I consider them high quality answers to interesting questions. The points need to be secondary. Otherwise, you will always be annoyed. $\endgroup$ – JeffDror Nov 27 '14 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ I too have been frustrated that my highest voted answers are mostly just the ones to the simple popular ones and not the ones I think are more deserving. I've found the reputation gain a bittersweet because it's nice to have more reputation but I don't really feel like it's "earned" rep. $\endgroup$ – Brandon Enright Nov 29 '14 at 5:40
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    $\begingroup$ @BrandonEnright: I think you've put your finger in it. In the absence of any financial reward it's the adulation of your peers that makes it rewarding (I'm using the word adulation rather loosely :-). When people upvote an answer that you aren't proud of it cheapens the experience. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Nov 29 '14 at 6:06
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    $\begingroup$ I suspected it might have been due to erosion of the glass by the alkaline detergent/soap. BTW, I'm 61! $\endgroup$ – user56903 Dec 3 '14 at 9:22

I think it is correct that the more popular subjects will get more attention than the best questions and answers on less popular subjects.

That's life.

If I were to write the best book ever written on the subject of fluid mechanics, the definite sine qua non of this vital subject, and it got rave reviews from the top scientists in the field, I'd still have to be satisfied with book sales in the low thousands, perhaps hundreds. In the meantime, the current NY Times bestseller list features the #1 bestseller at the moment as: 41, by George W. Bush. The 43rd president’s portrait of his father, George H. W. Bush, the 41st.

It's the same thing when it comes to Library Science. To become a professional librarian generally requires a master's degree, and this requires about 6 years of education. And your starting salary will be exceeded by that of an associate degree recipient who studied computer programming. The world simply needs more programmers; librarians? Meh.

Is this fair? It is just? Perhaps not, but it is reality.

So you must learn to be satisfied with your own work, if it is what gives you the greatest satisfaction, and forget that your reputation doesn't grow as fast as someone else's, who chooses to answer the easy questions.

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    $\begingroup$ One thing is reality, and there is another, if we accept it and smile on it. $\endgroup$ – peterh Nov 30 '14 at 0:20
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    $\begingroup$ But librarians also get to join the secret committee that actually runs the world, right? $\endgroup$ – dmckee Nov 30 '14 at 19:29
  • $\begingroup$ Physics.SE really needs an equivalent of mathoverflow. $\endgroup$ – shortstheory Mar 6 '15 at 5:51

I think the rep system is working. The way I see it, rep you should get rep for helping people. If you write a poor answer that doesn't give any useful information, then you won't help anyone and you shouldn't get rep. If you write a good answer to a very narrowly focused question that only 10 people care about, then you should get some rep because you helped some people. On the other hand, if you write a good answer to a popular question that 1000 people care about, then you should get a lot of rep because you helped a lot of people. This system encourages people to write answers that will help the most people.

I think ultimately this is a good thing. We are all sad that not everybody is an expert in physics. I think the best way we can help change that is to write good answers to the "simple" questions that make non-experts say "aha!", and teaches them some simple physics concepts. The more questions like this that are answered on this site, the more physics people will be able to learn on their own, and the higher the general public's knowledge of physics will be. Then there will be a greater interest in the higher-level questions.

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    $\begingroup$ You assume people only upvote if they are helped. On the contrary, for a case like the soap question, I'm sure people just browse StackExchange like a magazine in the waiting room for a dentist, and if they see something comprehensible, they click the link, learn some new funfact, and then vote right before they leave 1 minute later. $\endgroup$ – Nikolaj-K Dec 3 '14 at 8:40

"...Not that I wish to be ungrateful, but I put far more effort, and found it far more interesting, to write an answer explaining where the idea that black holes are gateways to other universes originated, and that answer has so far scored just a single upvote.... I guess that as the site attracts a wider audience the answers that get the most upvotes are going to be the simple ones that everyone can understand. It does detract a bit from the usefulness of the reputation system though. ... Yes I'm a bit frustrated that what I consider my better answers don't attract as much attention as the more obvious ones (people just don't appreciate my genius) but that isn't going to drive me off the Physics SE... ... Of course, that isn't going to stop me moaning :-)

I am very fond of John Rennie, and I have expressed my great esteem for him in many occasions. He his the first figure one comes to know and appreciate, as soon as one joins this site. He is not so active now, but, when I joined in Summer, I could see at 8 o'clock sharp a whole string of excellent, clear and interesting answers in impeccable British English, signed by a photo of a distinguished figure that reminded me of a XIX century Squire.

But I cannot avoid to poind out how this post of his is a contradiction of the position he held when I first exposed this problem and when I offered a solution. My posts where heavily downvoted, and probably he too downvoted them, now his post has 10 upvotes, so far. Congrats!

It would be simple and effective to put a rep cap to questions (and answers) bearing the tag 'everyday-life', why don't you propose or just do it?

My suggestion was more far-reaching than this. It would give a solution to all the other problems, including the one dmckee was hinting to here, of cliques, fans, followers and supporters (sometime: worshippers). There are some members that get anyway dozens of votes, no matter they write, even if they do not answer the OP question , or just write simple answers for which another member would get (at most) a couple of votes.

Just to give you one of the hundreds of examples this simple answer has got only 30 words (made to look longer repeating the question and adding the tag: the answer is simple), is not the first and is not better that the others, yet, it fetches 22 votes (almost one-word-one-vote).

So, in conclusion, I must ask John: why don't you do something in concrete, instead of moaning :) , to back up my proposal that answers should be rated?


The key word being thrill... the end result is that people are willing to devote large chunks of their time to writing some truly fantastic answers. ...

I think the current reputation system is very, very good... If you start making changes .. I fear you will start demotivating exactly the sort of people who make this site such as a success.

So even though you cite me in your question as appreciating the validity of your arguments, let me make it very clear that I comprehensively disagree with the views expressed in your question.


Yes I'm a bit frustrated that what I consider my better answers don't attract as much attention as the more obvious ones (people just don't appreciate my genius) but that isn't going to drive me off the Physics SE.

The thrill of easy rep is compensated by the frustration of seeing one's merit not appreciated. That's life, John, you can't have it both ways.

Note: This time it'll be amusing to see how the farcical carousel of downvoting/upvoting will develop, since I have only quoted verbatim John's statements. I couldn't possible attribute a downvote to me, as I just recorded a contradiction, or I hope, a change of opinion, which I welcome! :)

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    $\begingroup$ People really don't like your views on the rep system :-). Actually I don't either though I haven't downvoted. I don't see the problem as due to the rep system. I see it being due to physics not being compulsory from kindergarten onwards. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Nov 29 '14 at 10:20
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnRennie, Hi John, I'm glad you did not take any offence, I was just pulling your leg! :) , probably you do not realize that after 4 months you are agreeing with my criticism of the current 'irrational' system. And that is only because only now for the first time you are tasting its negative effects, I criticized it in principle. If you are not criticizing it, then I do not see the point of your post. $\endgroup$ – bobie Nov 29 '14 at 10:30
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    $\begingroup$ There isn't really a point to my post, since at the end of the day all I'm saying is that there are more non-physicists than physicists. The post was written to vent my frustration about this fact, and actually it and the resulting discussion have been quite cathartic and I feel better now :-) I remain completely opposed to any suggestions for stopping people from voting the way they want to vote. The fact I don't like it doesn't make it wrong. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Nov 29 '14 at 10:36
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnRennie, probably you (all) misinterpreted my suggestion, I never said people shouldn't vote the way they want. You may rate a post, and contemporarily say 'I liked it' (even if it is silly), the two things should be kept separate. Or, as I said above, since this is a Physics site and not Yahoo-answers , every-day stupid questions, should have a cap. If you can find a better solution whatever it is, I'll back it. But leaving things as they are doesn't seem wise. :) $\endgroup$ – bobie Nov 29 '14 at 10:57
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    $\begingroup$ I view the "simple answers get a lot of votes so let's change the system" answer along the lines of "Man, I don't like when it rains outside so let's find a way to eliminate all the big clouds." Is it sometimes annoying when it rains? Sure, but it doesn't mean the planet is fundamentally broken. If you really object to rainy days, don't live in Seattle and move to the desert. If you don't like rep from simple answers, find another site. Or just take @JohnRennie's advice and be patient, and vent once in awhile here or in chat. But systemic change isn't required in my opinion. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Nov 30 '14 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ @tpg2114, " I view the "simple answers get a lot of votes so let's change the system" answer along the lines of "Man, I don't like when it rains outside so let's find a way to eliminate all the big clouds ..." . Your insane solution is a fallacious interpretation of my suggestion, which was a bit more sensible than yours: ".. I don't like when it rains outside so let's buy an umbrella". $\endgroup$ – bobie Dec 1 '14 at 6:12
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    $\begingroup$ Some time ago on the MathSE board, I also pointed out your "popular users" issue, see this answer and the discussion in the comments. $\endgroup$ – Nikolaj-K Dec 3 '14 at 8:45

I think we all share your experiences John. Like you, on the whole I don't mind a bit: I also gain as much as I give simply in reading other people's responses.

And indeed there is a sense wherein this experience is definitely a good thing. Let me try to demonstrate this by telling the kind of situation in which I am shamelessly seeking reputation by answering exactly the kind of popular question you speak of. I do do this (or try from time to time - I'm not often successful) and here's why.

One of my many reasons for becoming active on this site is that I saw it as a place not only to test and hone my knowledge of physics, but also to test and improve my ability as a technical writer. I am not at a University and have no formal experience in teaching, but I am doing more and more volunteer work at my daughter's school and other places and am interested in what makes a good technical writer.

On the whole, the answers I am proudest of score 2, 3 or 4 at the very very most, are accepted by the OP and the OP makes a comment or two that shows that they have learnt something from my efforts.

But sometimes I see a question that I think "there's something I see people having misconceptions with, and I think I can write an answer that most competent and open laypeople would get" - and this is when I really do shamelessly measure the worth of my answer by how many upvotes I get.

Not only does the world need good scientists, it desperately needs those who can convey their ideas well and effectively. Remember Richard Feynman, accepting the challenge of explaining the spin statistics theorem and saying "I'll prepare a freshman lecture on it" and then, a week later conceding that he couldn't do it and thus concluding that this means we (the physics community) don't really understand the SST. I admire Feynman enormously, his life and his work, but this is probably the anecdote about him that pierced into me most deeply. So in this sense I see it as altogether appropriate that the popular questions should be the ones to score well even though I fully understand your frustration. This doesn't mean the others are without worth - I think like you if this site were only popular questions I wouldn't be here.

  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean by "pierced", what conclusion do you draw from the anecdote? $\endgroup$ – Nikolaj-K Dec 9 '14 at 12:43
  • $\begingroup$ @NikolajK (1) That one should be able to explain one's ideas to an intelligent layperson. Now that of course doesn't needfully mean it has to be a short explanation and (2) that one should never make the mistake of underestimating someone else's capacity to understand, even if they lack much of one's training. $\endgroup$ – WetSavannaAnimal Dec 9 '14 at 12:49
  • $\begingroup$ I meant the Feynman anecdote where he drops the goal of teaching the SST. I don't understand the but there, or how you'd conclude from it that one should underestimate someone. $\endgroup$ – Nikolaj-K Dec 9 '14 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ @NikolajK Sorry, the "but" simply means that this anecdote is the thing that sticks most in my mind about Feynman, notwithstanding all his achievements. Even though he was at the forefront of science, he still thought one needs to explain one's ideas in their simplest terms. $\endgroup$ – WetSavannaAnimal Dec 9 '14 at 21:24
  • $\begingroup$ I see. Well I personally don't agree with that notion. I think it's also attributed to Einstein. "You haven't understood it if you can't explain it to a kid." I think it depends on the topic and one should think one did a good job just because one obscured the actual content with analogies and made those be understood. On a related note, there is the concept of a monad in category theory, and then it's implementation in computer science. And in this context, there is famously this notion. $\endgroup$ – Nikolaj-K Dec 9 '14 at 22:16
  • $\begingroup$ @NikolajK As I said, it doesn't needfully mean it has to be a short explanation. And I agree, analogies are often unhelpful. I like the Burritos and Joe Haskeller story. $\endgroup$ – WetSavannaAnimal Dec 9 '14 at 22:42
  • $\begingroup$ blog.plover.com/prog/burritos.html $\endgroup$ – Nikolaj-K Dec 9 '14 at 22:50
  • $\begingroup$ @NikolajK Actually Nikolaj I think you may misunderstand me a little. Here is what I would see as a good explanation. Take the notions of holonomy, (Riemann) curvature and all the rest of it. I don't mean explain this stuff with balls on rubber sheets: like the Burrito, it is an image that may help some people, but will hinder many others. I'd say strive for the simplest notions, like the following. Forget about visual analogies here: we haven't evolved to ken curvature in higher dimensions. Instead: what does curvature (together with torsion) tell us: essentially it seeks to quantify how ... $\endgroup$ – WetSavannaAnimal Dec 10 '14 at 1:05
  • $\begingroup$ @NikolajK .... much the Euclid parallel postulate breaks. The study of simple, slightly oddball connexions helps too: for example, define parallel transport on a sphere by keeping the angle between a vector and a line of latitude constant (so geodesics are straight lines on a Mercator projection): this connexion has zero curvature but nonzero torsion. The South pointing chariot is also another interesting way to make these ideas meaningful. A history lesson on Bolyai (replete with his self destructive obsession), Lobachevsky, Riemann and what they were essentially trying to do helps too. $\endgroup$ – WetSavannaAnimal Dec 10 '14 at 1:12
  • $\begingroup$ The fact that it is all about the breaking of the parallel postulate, that this is even possible, together with very simple but rigorous examples. I guess I'm finding it hard to put into words exactly what I mean, so that would be an example of what I would call a well polished and thoughtful explanation. An intelligent layperson will eventually get it without being led astray. $\endgroup$ – WetSavannaAnimal Dec 10 '14 at 1:15

Well, another easy way to get reputation is to create a FAQ and answer it yourself, like...

How does the Hubble parameter change with the age of the universe?


Joking aside, I share the frustration that basic questions get far more attention than advanced ones. When I look at my own most-upvoted answers, I also see that many of them are answers that took me the least effort to write, while complex answers on which I spent a significant amount of time hardly got any votes at all. Now, this is of course perfectly logical, and I'm OK with that.

But there's one 'feature' of SE that sticks out like a sore thumb: once a popular question gets enough views, it ends up in the 'Hot Network Questions' queue. If that happens, the views (and votes) are boosted up enormously, far higher than it usually deserves. I find this very unfair; there already is a significant discrepancy in the rewards given to answering 'popular' and 'specialized' questions, and this arbitrary feature increases it even more. I think this can discourage people from devoting their precious time to write high-quality answers on advanced subjects.

Now, I don't know how this can be fixed. One could argue to simply get rid of the 'Hot Network Questions' list. But I admit that I quite like reading what's going on on the various SE sites. It makes fun reading, and one such question has actually prompted me to become a member of another SE site. It's a very effective way to promote the network.

Alternatively, some sort of restriction might be put on the upvotes of these questions; but such measures would also be arbitrary and somewhat unfair. And of course, there are other ways in which a question can suddenly gain a lot of publicity: for example, the views will also increase substantially if the question is linked to on a popular external site like Reddit. These 'outside' influences are even harder to control, and frankly they shouldn't.

So I've been thinking about another way to counter this effect, namely by rewarding 'advanced' answers. Perhaps we can devise a method to measure the quality of someone's answers, in addition to the amount of votes they get. I have such an idea, and I would be interested in everyone's opinion, so I will post it as a separate topic. Stay tuned...

  • $\begingroup$ Especially considering the FAQ you mention is basically just your two posts on the subject with a few added graphs :-) Actually the two or three FAQ type questions I've posted I'm very pleased with and I think they deserve their upvotes. It's when I dash off a quick answer to an easy but popular question and it gets 50 upvotes that the rep system seems a bit broken. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Dec 13 '14 at 7:49
  • $\begingroup$ @John Yes, I chuckled when I first read that FAQ :-) When I look at my top 10 answers, 6 of them were very straightforward; one even consists of a single sentence... Have you read my follow-up topic? Thoughts? $\endgroup$ – Pulsar Dec 13 '14 at 8:03

Reputation is fun to get and I think serves a very useful purpose.

But at the end of the day I think the point of this site is to help people with useful answers and learn new stuff by seeing the way other people approach problems, by thinking about the questions that are asked and by asking questions.

So from my point of view it is more important to engage in a good discussion through questions and answers and comments - I think this is more important than reputation.

So in answer to the question posed - yes I agree that popular science questions often get lots of attention and it may be a way to 'gain reputation', but I think our motivation in contributing here should be to engage in good scientific discussion about physics rather than just to gain reputation. If our motivation is to engage in discussion then issues about reputation are perhaps not so important.

(This is a bit like Cyberherbalist's good answer.)

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    $\begingroup$ What is the useful purpose? $\endgroup$ – Nikolaj-K Dec 3 '14 at 8:37
  • $\begingroup$ @NikolajK I think reputation is useful as it gives an indication of how active people are and how helpful people find their questions / answers... so for example, moderators have to have reputation of 10,000 and they can close questions, reopen them etc. etc., to be able to downvote an answer you need to have reputation 50 etc. so I think the useful purpose is in the regulation of the site - do you agree? I can't see a better way to have the site regulated - what do you think? $\endgroup$ – tom Dec 3 '14 at 11:30
  • $\begingroup$ I think that should be it. It also motivates some to contribute. $\endgroup$ – Nikolaj-K Dec 3 '14 at 14:21
  • $\begingroup$ @NikolajK - yes you are right - it is also useful because it motivates people to contribute and that encourages participation. The problem comes, as John Rennie points out, when much effort can sometimes gain little reputation and a short 'easy' answer gains significant reputation and it feels unfair ---, which leads to John Rennie's question and this answer $\endgroup$ – tom Dec 3 '14 at 14:29

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