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I've been following the tag for some time now, and it led me to this Phys.SE question, which was recently closed. While the cited reason was

This question does not appear to be about physics within the scope defined in the help center.

a more telling clue was the four upvotes on John Rennie's comment:

I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it concerns the history of science

The six upvotes on Marcel Köpke's comment

maybe give it a try here: hsm.stackexchange.com

also seem to send a message.

There have been discussions (also here) on meta about this, and the consensus is that is on-topic. But times may have changed, and I see a lot of comments to questions along the lines of "This might be better for HSM."

So, as circumstances have changed, I suggest we revisit the topic.

Should questions be on-topic on Physics?


For what it's worth, I see nothing wrong with keeping history questions on-topic here, as other science sites (and Mathematics) have done. At the same time, despite my jokes about more traffic on HSM being more work for me, more questions there would certainly help. Also, given that mathematics is our top category (by far), physics questions would dilute the flow. Questions can absolutely be on-topic on multiple sites, though. I'm neutral on the issue.

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  • $\begingroup$ Note that some historical attempts may nowadays be considered non-mainstream physics. $\endgroup$ – Qmechanic Mar 22 '16 at 13:05
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We've definitely agreed before that (at least some) historical questions are on topic, and I would urge close voters to refrain from closing such questions simply for being historical unless and until policy changes.

I know from my own experience monitoring astro questions that a nonnegligible number of people seem to think a question can only belong in one place, and that if there is a more specific site that caters to the topic, the question should be migrated away from here. However this is simply not the case. Combined with the intrinsic bias of looking at comment votes (they can't be voted down!) and the fact that most people prowling the review queues are doing so intent on closing questions, and I think it's fair to say some upvoted "history is off topic" comments do not in themselves constitute policy.


That said, I have no problem with us deciding to make history off-topic, and I have no problem with this decision being made solely because we now have an HSM site. The questions would hopefully flourish there, and everyone on this site who thinks history is irrelevant can continue happily living in their bubble in which all the right answers are known from on high right from the beginning.1

In this case, though, we would have to consider several points:

  1. What should we do with old history questions? They're too old to migrate, and we wouldn't want to flood HSM with a bunch of them all at once anyway. Systematically close them all? Leave them around? Lock them as historical?
  2. Users would have to be informed about the policy. This means a definitive FAQ meta post, a deprecation warning in the tag, and/or a special close reason.
  3. What if HSM fails? Do we go back to accepting historical questions? Do we import their physics questions? This isn't just about contingency planning per se; I think an answer to this question will help define why we do not want history here.

1Strong words, I know. But I maintain that anyone who thinks physics is nothing more than learning presently-accepted facts out of a book is deluding themselves. In order to be a physicist, one must learn how to build new theories and experiments. Historical context can, ideally, provide some insight into how to think when you don't already know the answer. Of course, I don't insist that this site cater to every facet of training physicists, otherwise we'd be morally obliged to become a homework help service too.

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The magical thing about physics is that I can write down an equation that will tell me how the universe is going to behave (well, at least in principle :-). We're all used to this, so we take it for granted, but if you stop to think about it the fact we mere humans can do this is absolutely amazing. This activity, the writing down of equations that describe the universe, is the core activity of physicists.

So the perfect physics question is one that I can answer by writing down an equation that describes the universe. Imperfect but still excellent physics questions concern the interpretation or clarification of such equations. Actually I'm happy to answer any question as long as ultimately the answer depends on a mathematical model.

Questions about how human beings came to formulate such models can still be physics if they depend on understanding, or at least appreciating, earlier simpler models. I think this is what dmckee was getting at in his answer. Physics is still central to such discussions even though it may not be the core concern.

But move any farther away from what seems to me to be our core activity and I don't think it's a question about physics, and therefore peripheral to this site. I don't rend my clothes and tear my hair when I see such questions, but since we have a perfectly good history of science SE why post such questions here? I did vote to close the question that prompted this debate, but I considered my vote as a personal preference of little importance unless four other people expressed similar preferences (which they did :-).

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  • $\begingroup$ Why post such questions here? Because they're directly relevant to contemporary physics. I'm fairly new, and I don't have much reputation, but I have been a little surprised at seeing questions being closed. I can imagine flagging a question as a duplicate or a near-duplicate, but closing it doesn't seem to be in the spirit of what this site is all about. What Chris White said below re policy sounded good. However what didn't sound so good was prowling the review queues intent on closing questions. $\endgroup$ – John Duffield Apr 14 '15 at 18:43

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