I've raised a question that was put on hold, here:

Could a falling office tower cause the melting of its iron or steel support structure?

I wanted to post for discussion the reason the question was put on hold. I would preface that I don't want to offend anyone, raise defences, bring questions where not welcome, or rattle an apple cart. I'm not accusing anyone of doing anything wrong, or anything being out of line.

That said, I am having trouble understanding the nature of the rejection of the question, and would appreciate understanding the rationale, and I feel like that might be important for the community of users and potential users. Any insight shall be sincerely appreciated, but this discussion is not intended for my benefit, but for that of the community here.

The question I asked struck me as a curiosity. The physics were interesting to me so I napkin-speculated as to the answer but I did not feel myself competent to make any reliable conclusion.

I feel – and it initially appeared — that this would be a question appropriate for this site, and I was (and remain) open to whatever conclusion comes from the application of the physics to the data.

In other words, all I wanted was an answer to a relatively straightforward physics question that was beyond my capabilities – to learn something. Thanks to the answers posted (but since deleted), I did. Then the question was put on hold, and comments became what I perceived as speculative yet judgmental and hostile. This appears to be because the data and curiosity comes from the geopolitical event we call 9/11.

To explain the tangentiality of the relationship: The question I asked was and remains purely hypothetical, a timeless inquiry into the nature of the relations in the physical world; it has never mentioned or implied a relation to any events at all. That said, I made what was evidently the mistake of commenting on an answer that the reason I was asking was related to a thread on Skeptics.SE. Shortly thereafter I was accused of using the Physics site as a vehicle for linking to a WTC "controlled explosion" theory, whereupon I deleted my comment.

For completeness, from the Skeptics.SE sister–site here (where I, for what it's worth, enjoy a little reputation), shall summarize its content:

On 9/11, was Building 7 destroyed in a controlled explosion?

That theory in the linked answer on Skeptics.SE is not a conspiracy theory, in any defensible sense, as by definition a conspiracy theory attempts to find blame. The answer linked only indicates that there is evidence yet–unexplained by NIST, and posits an alternative (which alternative could very well be discredited, particularly by physics or engineering expertise). It is also not a conspiracy theory in the sense that it is readily falsifiable – potentially, it occurred to me, by way of an answer to the question I posted here. It also a genetic fallacy to conclude that by being from a so-called conspiracy one must dismiss the question as not being a curiosity of physics. Nevertheless, in spite of the logical fallacy and being semantically incorrect, the assertion that the question posted here was a conspiracy theory was evidently fatal to the inquiry.

I imagine that a question about another geopolitical event, like the Challenger disaster, would be perfectly acceptable, or similarly the same question in a different era or different country. Which makes me wonder, where does the condemnation and taboo come from? Certainly there are legitimate concerns if the question was unanswerable, vague or speculative, or the questioner argumentative or unwilling to accept answers that dismissed the theory. However, my question was easily and evidently answerable, and I am (and always remain) completely open to a credible conclusion.

The concern was raised on the comments that the question I posted here would become a conduit for a conspiracy theory, but the Skeptics.SE question is already quite popular, and in any case the link was in a comment to an answer – hardly a prominent exposure. It was certainly and apparently not the intention.

Which leaves me wondering what the governance and purpose of the site is. The tour says it's meant for asking about explanations of observed phenomenon. But that seems to not be adequate. There are contemporaneous and forensic observations of melted iron and steel found at the WTC site, and the question was presented as a hypothetical for possible explanations of that observed phenomenon.

The tour gives criteria for dismissal, such as being a homework question, outside mainstream physics, based on opinion, lengthy answers, or need for lengthy discussion, but none seem to apply. While being a homework question may be improper, the site itself states that it generally should not be a problem. So there's no apparent (or given) basis for dismissal, other than its relation to a geopolitical event, even though such dismissal is inconsistent with the values and rules espoused. Why bother having the rules?

It always struck me that this site could have questions that are beacons of sensibility, expertise, and (dare I say) sanity in contrast with an Internet chock full of unsubstantiated speculation. I would like to think that this site could discuss and bring illumination about events of importance, and so ideally "conspiratorial-type" questions would be not just permitted but encouraged precisely to debunk conspiratorial wish-wash. The answers I received were interesting and useful, precisely because. I wish this could be a place where I could ask more; there are criteria for dismissing bad questions but relation to a geopolitical event is not one — it is arbitrary, capricious, and fragile.

Should not the criteria for dismissing questions be independent of the origin of the curiosity causing the question and the source for the data? Is that not the essence of scientific inquiry, the critical distinction that allows intellectual curiosity to overcome rumination?

The above is all to say, dismissing the question I asked for the reasons given feels wrong – I clearly am missing something. I feel like closing the question necessitates employing things in opposition to ideals I believe are fundamentally good, such as:

  1. Engaging and involving those curious about physics;
  2. illuminating relevant details about important events that affect lives;
  3. honouring the rules of the site presented to the public; and
  4. linking to and building relationships with other StackExchange sites.

I feel the site is missing an opportunity for topics where illumination on the Internet is most wanting. I've always believed those with greater capabilities have a duty to those who do not to share their illumination, and this site could serve as a place for spreading knowledge about physics related to events that affect our lives. Otherwise, what is the point?

I am not trying to start an argument, upset the apple cart, or step into the unwelcome. I am not blaming or accusing anyone of anything, nor asking that the question be reviewed or re-opened, nor that any theories be reviewed or speculated upon, nor that any changes be made to the site, its governance, or its policies.

I don't need a response or to be part of a discussion, but I feel a discussion should be had because the criteria for closing questions seems to divert from reason and common sense, to include a taboo of things tangentially related to an important geopolitical event, even where such dismissal is contrary to the guidelines the site offers to the public.

Something about that doesn't sit right with me, and if this site and its community are important to you then this shouldn't sit right with you either.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ AFAIK, geopolitical means how geography pays a role in politics & political relations. How on earth (pun intended) does a question remotely about 9/11 fall into that category? $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Dec 22 '15 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ The event is of geopolitical significance because it happened in the borders of the USA by people from outside of those borders. It also triggered an international war. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Hunt Dec 22 '15 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ The terrorists that perpetrated 9/11 had no land and no government pushing the attacks, so I think it might be a stretch to say it was geopolitical (afaic, it a religiously motivated attack), but I'm not going to push anything further; your comment suffices. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Dec 22 '15 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ Part of being an intellectual is having a sense of good taste. Your post clearly didn't fall into that category, to begin with. If these topics excite you, that's fine. What you can't except is that other people have an equal taste for them, especially in places like this, which are about science and not some conspiracy theories. $\endgroup$ – CuriousOne Dec 27 '15 at 9:22
  • $\begingroup$ @CuriousOne Thank you for sharing your opinion. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Hunt Dec 27 '15 at 17:12

Clearly, "debunk this crazy theory" is primarily the bailiwick of skeptics.se - but I think that sometimes the wider physics community can be asked to comment on particular aspects of physics, especially when the calculation is not totally obvious. We should be a resource, not a clique.

In that spirit I answered the question that was originally asked by OP, and which go subsequently closed as "too homework like", with a bunch of "we don't want no conspiracy theories on our site" comments. I thought the tone of some of those comments did not reflect the openness and civility that I would like to believe are the hallmarks of physics.se - but that's just my opinion.

I was actually the one who, by making an allusion of "historical events", may have created the association of the WTC7 event that was the subject of a skeptics question, and which OP subsequently linked in a comment, triggering the comment stream.

I agree it might not have been the "best" physics question - but it wasn't a terrible one either, and didn't feel like a homework question to me (otherwise I would have tagged it as such with a comment). I feel more and more that there is a lot of shouting at newcomers, at the expense of the over all quality of the site. We were all new on this site at one point - and we stayed because we felt welcome. Let's do unto others as was done unto us - guiding them to the mores of the site with a gentle firmness, not abuse.

  • $\begingroup$ Care to provide the data that supports your otherwise baseless claim in the last paragraph? $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Dec 22 '15 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you @Floris — I hope others on the site appreciate your perspective, and that you ultimately end up being right about the civility and openness. The WTC event in question raises a lot of emotions, that can get to even the best of us at times. Anything that even remotely threatens to open those emotions back up can be hard on people, and many in such circumstances do not think things through as they ordinarily might. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Hunt Dec 22 '15 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos what "baseless claim" are you talking about? "I feel" is a statement of how I feel - there is no need for data to back that up other than my assertion that that is how I feel. $\endgroup$ – Floris Dec 22 '15 at 15:32
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    $\begingroup$ Your feelings must be based on something, no? Something you've seen or read here. If it's not based on that, then by definition it is baseless. Your impression is at odds with what I see & read, so I want to know on what you're basing your feelings on. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Dec 22 '15 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ I particularly support the last paragraph. $\endgroup$ – Ross Millikan Dec 22 '15 at 15:43
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    $\begingroup$ Yes my feelings are based on things I read. You know I spend a fair bit of time here, mostly trying to instill a positive atmosphere. I can't give you specific numbers or instances of such comments and I can't be bothered to go looking right now. It is not a productive use of my time. $\endgroup$ – Floris Dec 22 '15 at 15:44
  • $\begingroup$ I spend quite a bit of time here as well & I don't see a negative atmosphere in general in the least. It is actually somewhat depressing that someone with enough time aren't here as you can't see the forest for the trees. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Dec 22 '15 at 16:03
  • $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos I think there is plenty of good stuff going on - otherwise I would not spend time here. But I feel myself cringe more than I used to - perhaps I am more sensitive? I don't understand your second point - did auto correct mangle something? $\endgroup$ – Floris Dec 23 '15 at 3:05

The tour says it's meant for asking about explanations of observed phenomenon. But that seems to not be adequate.... The tour gives criteria for dismissal, such as being a homework question, outside mainstream physics, based on opinion, lengthy answers, or need for lengthy discussion, but none seem to apply. So there's no apparent (or given) basis for dismissal, other than its relation to a geopolitical event.

The tour is a brief introduction to the site, not a rulebook. So the argument that there's nothing in the tour that forbids a particular type of question doesn't make it on topic.

There are contemporaneous and forensic observations of melted iron and steel found at the WTC site, and the question was about a possible explanation of that observed phenomenon.

What observed phenomenon? If you were asking whether iron and steel can melt, or what temperature/pressure/etc. it takes for them to do so, that would be a physics question. An exceedingly basic one, sure, and for that reason probably not a good one, but it is at least a physics question. When you extend that to asking whether the conditions for melting existed at the WTC site, that's no longer physics.

I would like to think that this site could discuss and bring illumination about events of importance, and so ideally "conspiratorial-type" questions would be not just permitted but encouraged precisely to debunk conspiratorial wish-wash.

That's what Skeptics is for. Our purpose is questions about the study of physics. I don't think this is one. If a question happens to refer to politics, conspiracies, whatever, that in itself doesn't make it off topic here, but it does need to be very tightly focused on the underlying physics and not the events or applications.

All that being said, the main reason your question was closed was because it's just asking us to do a calculation, not really asking about an underlying concept. You haven't shown any effort to work through it yourself. Those sorts of questions don't get a good reception here, and they tend get classified as homework-like as per our homework policy.

The closure didn't have anything to do with the fact that the question is asking about the World Trade Center collapse.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The point of my answer, which was deleted, is that there is enough gravitational potential energy in a tall building to melt a quantity of steel - but that there is no obvious mechanism to transfer that energy (distributed over 300,000 tons) to a small enough volume that it could melt. That seems to me where the interesting physics happens - not at the "calculate the potential energy of a building of height h and mass m" level. Oddly enough, the answer that just did that calculation was not deleted, and mine was. $\endgroup$ – Floris Dec 22 '15 at 12:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Floris Hm, the other answer was also supposed to be deleted at the same time. I've taken care of that now. $\endgroup$ – David Z Dec 22 '15 at 13:27
  • $\begingroup$ Fair enough David - I disagree with the reason as stated above, but at least now it's applied more uniformly. In my opinion we are too fast on the trigger with this particular close reason... but as a moderator your actions speak for the community, where mine only speak for me, the individual. $\endgroup$ – Floris Dec 22 '15 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Floris yeah, the deletion thing was just a mistake. Oops. Sorry. ;-) The matter of whether this specific question should be put on hold as homework-like in the first place (and if not, whether it should be on hold at all) is a matter for a separate discussion, I think, which is why I've limited my statements on that here. $\endgroup$ – David Z Dec 22 '15 at 13:47
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    $\begingroup$ Note that the question did not mention WTC7 at all. In my answer I surmised that there might be a link - but none was mentioned by OP until I had posted my answer, and he then linked to the skeptics article. That makes the entire storm-in-a-teacup about "keep your conspiracy theories off our site" just that. And at least one person explicitly said (in the comments) he voted to close for that reason, even if later people checked the "homework" box as close reason. $\endgroup$ – Floris Dec 22 '15 at 13:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Floris indeed, though I think nothing in my answer here depends on the question being about the WTC site specifically. (That being said, IMO it would be quite silly to argue that the question is not about, or at least strongly motivated by, the WTC collapse.) $\endgroup$ – David Z Dec 22 '15 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ Which is why I made the oblique reference in my answer.... $\endgroup$ – Floris Dec 22 '15 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ Just as a matter of clarification, John Dunnfield had at one point upvoted the question, apologized in a comment for CuriousOne's downvote that the question was "homework", however John later deleted his comment, reversed his position and simultaneously accused me of using the question to link to a conspiracy theory. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Hunt Dec 22 '15 at 15:21
  • $\begingroup$ I have edited the question to allay concerns about the homework dismissal. If there is other room for improvement, I am happy to try and oblige to bring the question up to the sites' standards. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Hunt Dec 22 '15 at 15:22

The question was closed officially as "too homework like". I don't think it is, at least it was quite paraphrased if it is homework. I see people wondering about things like this from time to time-obviously there is potential energy in building materials and it takes energy to melt steel. Which is greater? Usually, as here, there is a large difference in the energies involved and it helps one get a picture of the world to know which direction the comparison comes out.

When there are crazy theories about geopolitical events, a simple calculation like this will not influence the true believers. I think we should ignore those and get on with life.

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    $\begingroup$ Apologies Ross, I'm just a little unclear – does my question strike you as a crazy theory about a geopolitical event? Or one that'll help others get a picture of the world — to know which direction the comparison comes out? I appreciate the relevant concern about those whose mind cannot be bothered by facts, so to speak, but I would like to think I am not counted among them. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Hunt Dec 22 '15 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Hunt: I think one that helps people get a picture of the world. In this case, the fact that heating stuff takes a lot more energy than lifting stuff. That is why I would like to see the question reopened. $\endgroup$ – Ross Millikan Dec 22 '15 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ Very good. Thank you, Ross. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Hunt Dec 22 '15 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ I am surprised that asking a question about the physics can be attached negatively to a "Conspiracy Theory". Let the Science be separate of the political undertones. I am scratching my head trying to think the negative ramifications by working the problem. $\endgroup$ – Ed Yablecki Jan 3 '16 at 0:33

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