I see that in Area51 a proposal exists to create an independent Biophysics SE site. I have mixed feelings, but I support the initiative (so far its popularity is low).

In any case, I think that in Phys.SE questions heavily based on the knowledge of the related biology (I think in particular to the molecular and cellular level, nanometers to tens of micron) would be likely closed as off-topic, even if the question focused on the physics or thermodynamics. Actually I wish the tag will grow strong in Phys.SE together with a stronger (and accurate) biological side. The tag today is not really populated by questions deeply rooted on the biology, but that could change if the Phys.SE community are prepared to think twice before using the "off topic" stamp. Take it as a wish.

Is today research-level Biophysics too much pluridisciplinary or borderline for the (mainly quantum mechanics/relativity oriented) Phys.SE community? I'll be happy if I'm worrying for nothing.

(So far few example questions can be found in the Area51 link, and I invite everybody interested to post there their example questions)

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    $\begingroup$ To guide the discussion, can you identify some examples of biophysics questions on this site which were closed for being off topic? $\endgroup$ – David Z Dec 30 '15 at 17:49
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ: There are some questions tagged as biophysics that aren't really about biophysics (e.g., this one & its duplicate or this one). $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Dec 30 '15 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ I would much rather we tolerate biophysics questions than have to start using another site. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Dec 30 '15 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ To my knowledge, we don't really have biophysicists to ask & answer biophysics questions, so it's really a chicken & egg problem--one that could be solved if we have more biophysicists around! $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Dec 30 '15 at 21:41
  • $\begingroup$ I would agree with Kyle Kanos on this one. When we are getting questions relating to physics/biology, they are almost always of a nature that would not make any sense in biology, either, because they include false assumptions about physics, biology or the scientific method. One can not rescue a question that is unscientific by moving it into a border discipline. $\endgroup$ – CuriousOne Dec 31 '15 at 4:44
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know about biophysics per se, but there have certainly been questions about the application of statistical mechanics to biological populations that were closed on the basis of "not being about physics." I would welcome either a change in this site or the appearance of another site where that sort of thing would be welcome. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Dec 31 '15 at 7:46
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    $\begingroup$ There have been perfectly valid everyday-physics questions closed for biological phrasing like "how does X look/fell", "can I perceive X", etc., even through the translation to physical phrasing is trivial. People phrase questions this way because they don't know how else to write them. The questions aren't really about biology at all. In these cases the 'off-topic' closure is disingenuous; it actually means "we don't want to deal with your naivete". $\endgroup$ – knzhou Dec 31 '15 at 9:26
  • $\begingroup$ @knzhou: A naive question that may sound reasonable on its own may be non-scientific, nonetheless. Science can't give answers to these questions. Consider the most trivial one: "How does red light look?". This can not be answered either in biology or physics and there is no possible translation to the language and content of either discipline. $\endgroup$ – CuriousOne Jan 1 '16 at 7:27
  • $\begingroup$ @CuriousOne Yes, I agree, but it's possible to overcorrect here. I remember somebody asked "why do decline pushups feel harder". On the face of it, it looks like a pure 'experience' question, yet there's an objective physical answer in terms of muscle attachments, lever arms, and torques. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Jan 1 '16 at 7:54
  • $\begingroup$ @knzhou: You are right, it's a fine line and we have to parse these questions correctly. I do think, though, that on average we are often trying very hard to make sense of questions that are being asked in a naive fashion. $\endgroup$ – CuriousOne Jan 1 '16 at 7:57
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    $\begingroup$ Take this recent question on hold. I find it's a good example of what we are discussing: even if probably poorly phrased, there is place for a great answer about molecular motors from a specialist, but biophysics is confused with pure biology and put off-topic. Biophysicists cannot feel welcome like this. $\endgroup$ – scrx2 Jan 5 '16 at 20:11

No, Biophysics should not fork. There may be few biophysics questions on this site, but we should fix that by assimilating biophysicists into the fold, not by fracturing the already small community.

I think that in Phys.SE questions heavily based on the knowledge of the related biology (...) would be likely closed as off-topic, even if the question focused on the physics or thermodynamics.

First of all, is there any evidence that biophysics questions are closed here? If not, this speculation that they would be closed is probably not useful. Just post the questions, and if they get closed we will discuss why in the chat room or on the meta.

If the question focuses on the physics it's on topic for this site. It is possible that such questions would be closed, but that would be a mistake and I (and others) would object, discuss in the chat room or on the meta, and set things right. We are aware of over-zealous close voting and also of users picking the "off topic" reason when they really should be choosing one of the various versions of "poor quality".

I think the considerations relevant to this meta post are similar to those which have come up in the past regarding questions with mathematical or engineering flavors. When engineering questions are closed because the question really isn't about physics, then everything's fine and the user is directed to the engineering site. In cases where the question is of an engineering flavor but particularly relevant to e.g. physics lab work, is of a nature such that only physicists can answer, or aims to get a uniquely physics perspective, then I think the question is appropriate for Physics.SE. I feel exactly the same way about biophysics.

I detailed and justified the opinion outlined above in a meta post on engineering questions. As that answer was upvoted and accepted I think it likely reflects the general consensus of the community.

The tag today is not really populated by questions deeply rooted on the biology, but that could change if the Phys.SE community are prepared to think twice before using the "off topic" stamp. Take it as a wish.

Overzealous closing does happen. It's happened before with engineering; this results in discussion and improvement. If biophysics questions are overzealously closed, please come to the chat room or the meta and point it out. The community here is pretty good about self-observation and improvement so I have faith we can work through any initial bumps.

So far few example questions can be found in the Area51 link, and I invite everybody interested to post there their example questions

I would suggest that instead you please tell everyone there to not be afraid to pose on Physics.SE! Asking us to support the Area51 proposal pushes us away from where we want to go.

  • $\begingroup$ I agree with this in principle, but acrimonious debates tend to appear on any question that isn't clearly and unambiguously "about physics" in the eyes of those users who feel that phrase is a meaningful one. While I see the point that this discussion serves to improve things to some extent, I also feel that it drives potential users away just as much as closing their question in the first place. If we want to attract users from other fields, there needs to be a very clear change in what's considered acceptable regarding closing and commenting on questions based on [...] $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Jan 2 '16 at 4:57
  • $\begingroup$ [...] the field of study, rather than the relevance of the question to physicists. However, I have no optimism that this will happen. The opinion that physics.SE questions must be not only relevant to physicists but actually "about physics" is very widely established here, as is the opinion that "about physics" automatically means "not about biology, chemistry, maths, engineering, etc.". Even mathematical and computational physics are often excluded on the basis of not being "physics". $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Jan 2 '16 at 5:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Nathaniel Ok so how does this change the opinion that biophysics questions should be asked here rather than starting a new site? $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Jan 2 '16 at 14:15
  • $\begingroup$ It doesn't - they should. I'm just saying that if we want to encourage that, we should get our own house in order. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Jan 2 '16 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Nathaniel I agree with you. Our house may not be in as big a disarray as we think. Perhaps our biggest problem is that we're lazy about choosing close reason. We tend to pick "off topic" when the real problem with a question is its quality. I think this confuses newer users (it confused me when I was new) and I've pointed it out a few times. Maybe we need to get better about that. This is a particularly large problem with the "homework" close reason as detailed here. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Jan 2 '16 at 14:21
  • $\begingroup$ I agree that's a large part of the issue. For me the other side of it is that high-quality questions also sometimes get closed based on technicalities regarding what counts as "physics". This happens only rarely, but I think that's because it's only rarely that we receive high-quality questions from potential new users who are experts in some other field. Such questions are those users' first impression of the site, and potential new expert participants do come along I think we are not nearly welcoming enough in general. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Jan 3 '16 at 7:50
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    $\begingroup$ First of all, is there any evidence that biophysics questions are closed here? Well, yeah, for example this question about the physical basis of protein activity. The question is somewhat too broad, but the comments arguing to close it are clearly biased against bio-anything. $\endgroup$ – tel Jan 5 '16 at 21:32
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    $\begingroup$ A sampling of said comments: "I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is biology not physics", "there are ways to explain these things, but they don't start from first principles. That's what the biologists do and they use chemistry to tackle these questions. The only place where physics proper comes in is by giving them the tools to measure these interactions dynamically, e.g. with ultrafast x-ray crystallography. Like everybody else said: this question doesn't belong into physics." $\endgroup$ – tel Jan 5 '16 at 21:33
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    $\begingroup$ @tel Yeah, we should change that attitude :D $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Jan 5 '16 at 22:04

TL;DR - I believe that the expertise in biophysical techniques and biology is low over here and many times biophysics questions are closed due to being too biological. Therefore, another SE website might be needed to fix these issues.

What is Biophysics?

Biophysics is defined as the "the science of the application of the laws of physics to biological phenomena." As you can see, biophysics is mainly a subtopic of physics.

Why fork?

Biophysics have many of its own techniques and methods for analyzing biological systems. Some of these methods may be applied to a broader class of physical systems but still, the expertise on these topics is very low. Being in the field of biophysics (doing a research project in quantum biology), I myself have experienced this. My interest is in the environment assisred quantum transport of excitons. Recently I was researching on Forster Resonance Energy Transfer, a theory describing how the excitons are transferred in certain conditions. I have asked a few questions on that over here. For example This question was orginally asked on Physics.SE but got no responses. Similarly, this one also got no responses on Physics.SE. If there were a biophysics.SE I believe that it would be more specific to biophysical techniques and that it would bd much easier to find people with the expertise in the field. Therefore, questions like mine, although are purely physics questions, have a better chance of being answered if there is a successful Biophysics.SE website.

Now, let me simply analyze some of the questions under the biophysics tag. The first question is about the eye. This question is mainly physics, but some biology knowledge is needed to understand and answer the question. It seems that not many (active) people in the community have that kind of knowledge or otherwise it would have been answered.

Here is a question I do realize is a little bit on the bad question side but even with research, let's say the question is adapted to more like

Why can't rod receptors only allow us to visualize grey and black at night? What necessary physical factors about the rod receptors would be needed so we could see color at night? Based on the reasoning seen in the comments, it seems that it still would be closed as off topic since "it is about eyes, not physics". On the other hand, if there is a Biophysics.SE site, this question would be definitely on-topic and would make a great question.

Another question is about why do ears pop?. In the comments, there are five people agreeing that this is off-topic because it is about human physiology. Them there are another five people agreeing that this is on-topic (the 6th upvote is by me). This seems to be very debatable. However, with a Biophysics.SE site, we can have such great questions being perfectly on-topic!

Now let me analyze some of the questions on the Biophysics.SE website. Let me start with this one. Certainly, this is a physics question, but you need to know the operation of the dorsal closure of fruit flies. Does anybody here know about that? I don't think so (I do admit I do not know either, but that is irrelevant). Plus. I think many would agree that this requires too much knowledge about a biological process for it to be on-topic on Physics.SE

This question also would have a problem with needing too much biology knowledge about ATP and concentration gradients and molecular motor. I believe that this would also be closed on Physics.SE as well.


After doing an analysis by sampling questions and including my own experience, here are the main points that support the forking of the biophysics community:

  • There is not much expertise in the biophysical techniques in the Physics.SE community

  • There can be too much biological knowledge needed to answer a question, even though it may be mainly physics-based

  • Many times the questions will be closed because it is too biological and does not ask much about physics.

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    $\begingroup$ There isn't much expertise in biophysics here because we don't have biophysics questions. We don't have biophysics questions because biophysicists aren't here. That is the chicken-egg problem I mentioned above. Creating a new site to get that expertise is redundant to this one, since we are willing to accept biophysics & biophysicists. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Jan 2 '16 at 20:59
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos so then the question is attracting biophysicists! But that will be better done on a biophysics.SE site than a physics.SE site $\endgroup$ – TanMath Jan 2 '16 at 21:00
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    $\begingroup$ Again: why create a new site redundant to this one? This site has an established reputation of quality physics questions & accepts all subfields. You are positing that a potential site is somehow better than an existing site; you cannot accurately say that something that doesn't exist is somehow magically better than something that does exist. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Jan 2 '16 at 21:05
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos In no ways am I saying Physics.SE is worse than a potential Biophysics.SE. I am saying that certain types of question would be better received on a BioPhysics.SE site $\endgroup$ – TanMath Jan 2 '16 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ And I'm saying that it's wrong to think that because you have no idea what would be accepted there, whereas we know they're accepted here (and that we don't get many questions here because biophysicists aren't here). $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Jan 2 '16 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos then what about the weird close reasons people give like "this question is about eyes, not physics"? And what do you propose to being in biophysicists? $\endgroup$ – TanMath Jan 2 '16 at 21:15
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    $\begingroup$ Room for improvement is what I'd call it. Instead of clamoring for a redundant site, one should take it to Meta.Physics as fdpx has done (and as DanielSank & I have done about engineering vs experimental physics). Ask for change, not a new site. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Jan 2 '16 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ @TanMath Regarding what you call "weird close reasons", hop into the chat room or the meta and start a discussion. We need to improve that situation by educating other users, not by fracturing the community. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Jan 3 '16 at 14:03
  • $\begingroup$ Your argument that a new site called "Biophysics" would make it easier to find expert users doesn't make sense to me. Suppose there is one plate of food with an apple and a strawberry. If someone is hungry a strawberry they go to that plate. Now suppose there are two plates, one with an apple and one with a strawberry. Someone hungry for an apple goes to the apple plate. In both cases the person finds a plate with what they want. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Jan 3 '16 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielSank but the problem as Kyle Kanos said is that there isn't much biophysicists in the Physics.SE community. By creating a Biophysics.SE and advertising it, there is a greater chance that biophysicists will come there since it is more geared towards them. $\endgroup$ – TanMath Jan 3 '16 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ @TanMath Why wouldn't we just advertise Physics.SE to biophysicists? I don't understand why making a new site helps advertisement. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Jan 3 '16 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielSank Fine, but still, a Biophysics.SE is more geared towards biophysicists. Therefore, there is better support at a Biophysics.SE $\endgroup$ – TanMath Jan 3 '16 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ @TanMath I don't understand that reasoning at all. Consider two options: 1) I have a room full of three biophysicists and ten other physicists from AMO, astrophysics, GR, and solid state. I post questions to this room. 2) I have two rooms, one with three biophysicists and another with ten physicists from AMO, astrophysics, GR, and solid state. I pose questions only to the room of three biophysicists. Why do you think option 2 is better than option 1? $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Jan 3 '16 at 18:53
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielSank I am probably not being clear. I am saying: Let's say both Biophysics.SE and Physics.SE are advertised. Which one will a biophysicist who sees both ads join? Obviously the Biophysics.SE $\endgroup$ – TanMath Jan 3 '16 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ @TanMath That may be true but it doesn't make it the right choice. Suppose I throw two parties in two different rooms. On the door to one room I put a sign "BOYS" and on the other door I put a sign "GIRLS". People seeing this will likely enter the door for their gender. However, if we instead have a single party with a sign "EVERYBODY" on it, we wind up with a more fun party. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Jan 3 '16 at 19:11

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