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Update: The Theoretical Physics proposal will not be closed

See: The Theoretical Physic Proposal Back Underway!


Over the last 8 months, I have watched an Area 51 proposal to create a Theoretical Physics site which would, effectively, split the Physics community into two separate branches of study.

I can appreciate and understand both sides of the debate (focused vs. broader appeal). That's why I've been watching carefully the Area 51 discussions and the development of Physics SE. The proposal has inched along slowly over 8 months while the Physics Stack Exchange continues to evolve.

At this time, I feel strongly that splitting the field of physics between two separate sites would be materially harmful to both the proposed Theoretical site and the Physics SE. Having two related sites like that will only draw much-needed attention to the detriment of both.

Physics SE has been doing fine in the Area 51 analytics, but there have been concerns of steadily declining traffic and visitors. If Physics SE had the "big city" problems of a Stack Overflow, there might have been merit to splitting up the community but, as it stands, I don't think this site can take the additional hit on its declining traffic.

But traffic isn't the main reason not to split up this site. The Theoretical Physics proposal was created when this Physics site was very young. At the time, it wasn't clear if the two branches of study would benefit from being on the same site. But the Physics SE has made tremendous progress and, to their credit, this site seems to have successfully and harmoniously integrated these areas of study.

In short, I feel that the scope of questions outlined in this proposal have a home on Physics SE. That doesn't mean that we can never open another physics-based site. There may be a time where that makes sense. But I am planning on closing the Theoretical Physics proposal and wanted to let you know how I came to that decision and to see if there were any further issue I should consider before finally closing the proposal.

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    $\begingroup$ Although I'm sure there will be people who object to this, I'm in favor. I'm certainly open to anything that can be done to ensure that the kinds of questions which were proposed for TP.SE will find a good home on this site. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jul 18 '11 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately, the raison d'être of the Theoretical Physics site holds even more true today: "the level of the physics site is way too low. Most questions and answers are at the pop-sci level, or at best basic undergrad stuff. ... I honestly can't see how it could be made attractive to professional physicists. The motivation behind this proposal was to aim only to attract such people..." How would we attract professionals to the site when it simply turns them/us off in its current state? $\endgroup$ – nibot Jul 19 '11 at 0:18
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    $\begingroup$ I dont think traffic will go down or quality lowered here because another site is launched, rather I think it will attract more professional people to SE as a whole, I dont think anyone here will abandon ship just because another site is launched. If we look at the MO vs MSE then most people at MO is also active at MSE $\endgroup$ – TROLLHUNTER Jul 19 '11 at 1:04
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    $\begingroup$ @solomoan: "most people at MO is also active at MSE." I don't think that is true, but you're right that there is a significant number of people active on both sites. $\endgroup$ – Jonas Meyer Jul 19 '11 at 4:40
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    $\begingroup$ I object to this also (the reasons the same as always) but most importantly, it's definitely not the case that existence of one type of site is going to hurt the other. These aren't women you are going to be married to. Many people are active on dozens of SE sites. TP.SE is going to attract new people for phy.SE also. But it certainly won't force current users of phy.SE to delete their accounts (I find it very weird to write this obvious sentence but it seems many people think otherwise for whatever reasons)... $\endgroup$ – Marek Jul 19 '11 at 8:43
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    $\begingroup$ @nibot: If the state of this site is turning off professionals, then you fix this site. There is no magic do-over in that proposal; Support is sluggish at best. Right now efforts are split between creating two smaller sites, both of which are struggling. I see this as a "join or die" situation: wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_meaning_of_Join_or_Die $\endgroup$ – Robert Cartaino Jul 19 '11 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ Good comment Robert. I'll say again that I'm very receptive to anything that can be done to make this site more appealing to the professional crowd (short of kicking out everybody without a PhD ;-p). I'm sure there are other active members here who feel the same way. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jul 19 '11 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with multiple comments above and below by, in particular, nibot and Marek. TP.SE should be a separate site. Professional physicists shouldn't spend time looking for serious, well-posed, well-documented, research-related questions and answers by sifting through an endless stream of pop-sci and undergraduate well-known textbook material. Instead of just killing the TP.SE proposal, given the bad traffic numbers, wouldn't it be possible to, say, delay launch, and sent out e-mails to people who originally signed up for the TP.SE proposal to reconfirm their commitment to ensure momentum? $\endgroup$ – Qmechanic Jul 20 '11 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ ps: it might be useful to add a link to this discussion to the proposal, since only 20% of people committed people to the TP proposal are from PSE and will not check this. Interestingly it seems that more than half of the people committed to the proposal are academics (i.e. researchers), in fact it seems to be the main problem of TP's progress i.e. committers are not active on other SE sites and therefore their commitment does not contribute to satisfy the requirements about reputation. $\endgroup$ – Kaveh Jul 20 '11 at 20:42
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    $\begingroup$ Responding to Qmechanic's "Professional physicists shouldn't spend time looking for serious, well-posed, well-documented, research-related questions and answers by sifting through an endless stream of pop-sci and undergraduate well-known textbook material," why not? That's exactly what happens on Stack Overflow: the site is flooded with beginner-level questions, and yet many professional programmers find it an invaluable resource. What makes physics so different? $\endgroup$ – David Z Jul 20 '11 at 23:27
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    $\begingroup$ @David, most researcher (especially in theoretical fields) don't like it, they consider that a waste of their time, most just want a quite place without distractions, a blackboard and a chalk. It is a completely different culture from professional programmers who do almost everything behind their screens and like this way of working. Try convincing some of the profs in your own department to use PSE and you will understand what I mean. $\endgroup$ – Kaveh Jul 21 '11 at 0:03
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    $\begingroup$ I do personally find it unfortunate that this other proposal is "Theoretical Physics" and not "Research-level Physics". $\endgroup$ – nibot Jul 21 '11 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidZaslavsky: I think the same applies to grad studnets and junior researchers so that is not a surprise to me. Most of those researchers who would be active on PSE and enjoy it (which is not going to be large even if there is no TP) will still enjoy it and will come to PSE if there is TP. IMHO, the only way to bring them to a site is that they enjoy it and they don't feel the gains are too little for the time they are investing. I think trying to get physics teachers and undergrads onto PSE would have a better result, they can answer most questions and are more probable to enjoy PSE. $\endgroup$ – Kaveh Jul 22 '11 at 10:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Sklivvz: quantity != quality. This site has thousands of users but only few of them contribute to the site. The research-level site will of course have a lot smaller userbase but there will be many more people who can provide good questions and good answers. This, in my opinion, is lot more important than having thousands observers who don't contribute anything... And by the way, that's also why phy.SE is faltering as well: there is (almost) no one to provide good content. $\endgroup$ – Marek Jul 24 '11 at 11:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Sklivvz: you of course have a point there. But I still believe that making the site advanced should both attract advanced users and repel laymen (I hope I do not sound too harsh here; I obviously also see a merit in a more elementary site like this one). It's not about calling it theoretical physics (which perhaps isn't the most fortunate name anyway), it's about consistently enforcing high quality (by strictly closing any question below graduate level, say). And by the way, I believe there must be some hundred thousand professional physicists so demographics certainly isn't a factor here... $\endgroup$ – Marek Jul 24 '11 at 12:36
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I have only just noticed this post since I stopped participating in this community after I had fulfilled my commitment. I strongly agree with Marek on this. The reason I no longer participate on this site is no secret: I simply have no faith that a question I ask will be answered correctly. The level of knowledge within the community as a whole is such that common misconceptions often become top answers, unless an opposing answer comes from Lubos. This isn't anyones fault, as far as I can tell, just an effect of the make-up of the community as a whole.

Further, I don't quite understand the distinction you draw between academics and professionals in physics (in your answer and the comments). Most professional physicists are academics, with a smaller number working in industry. I find the current situation quite sad, because if you check my CSTheory profile you'll notice I'm one of the most active users (at least if rep is a measure of this), but I consider myself a physicist and would be in a far better position to contribute on a physics site. However, it's hard to put into words how off putting it is to see a correct answer heavily downvoted in favour of nonsense.

The issue with trying to get this site to become a good venue for asking the type of questions that are likely useful to researchers is that because the site has such a large community interested in physics at a pop-sci or undergrad level, the number who can actually judge the merits of an answer to such a question is a very small fraction of the number of people voting on it (or even trying to answer it). Thus the basic premise of the good stuff floating to the top doesn't always hold for such questions. For this to work you need a community with a larger fraction of researchers

That said, there are people on here who I respect at a professional level. There simply aren't enough of them to for it to be worth me asking questions. (I don't mean to make this about me, I simply wanted to try to exlain how this looks from the position of someone who does fairly advanced physics for a living.)

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    $\begingroup$ "Most professional physicists are academics, with a smaller number working in industry." APS statistics do not support this claim, it's just that industry physicists contribute far fewer papers on account of writing more patent applications...different culture. This may be another example of mistaking QFT and GR for the larger class of physics, but the simple fact is that most physicist do other things. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Jul 23 '11 at 1:36
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    $\begingroup$ @dmckee: well I suppose it depends what your definitions are. Perhaps I am wrong about that, but I imagine it strongly depends on where you draw the line between physics and engineering. It's also subfield dependent. I'm pretty confident almost all professional string theorists are in academia, for example. $\endgroup$ – Joe Fitzsimons Jul 23 '11 at 1:52
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    $\begingroup$ Sure, all the string theorists are in academia, but most physics is still done in industrial laboratories (and trust me, the physics guys and the engineers agree on the difference). Sure, most of it probably looks pretty mundane if you are used to swooping through the heady realms of coordinate-free, high dimensional topologies, but it also hand the engineers the tools (new tools, because it is research) to make new things this decade. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Jul 23 '11 at 1:59
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    $\begingroup$ @dmckee: I'm not anti-industrial-physicists. I simply don't know many. Also, I kind of had TP in my head when I wrote this. $\endgroup$ – Joe Fitzsimons Jul 23 '11 at 2:03
  • $\begingroup$ I supposed, term "academy" formally associated rather with teaching and less with professional physics and it is usual problem discussed e.g. in Ulam book. $\endgroup$ – Alex 'qubeat' Jul 23 '11 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Alex: I'm not sure there is a consensus on where we draw the line. Consider the Perimeter Institute: It's clearly not industry, but the focus is research not teaching. $\endgroup$ – Joe Fitzsimons Jul 23 '11 at 21:21
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Not being a theorist I don't want to comment on the value to the theory community of a separate site, but I strongly agree that Physics.SE has barely enough participation to hang on. A big hit might kill us.

If the level of discussion thing is what has been driving the push for a separate site (just a conjecture on my part, BTW) then I am open to suggestions about how to encourage a higher level of discussion here.

Some ideas:

  • A conscience push to ask a lot of "research level" question in the course of a couple of week. Something like the First Periodic Premier Programming Puzzle Push I set up on CodeGolf.SE to considerable approval but mixed success.
  • Start pushing a culture of backing up answer with literature citations somewhat like the rule on Skeptics.SE. I imagine this would increase he average level of the discussion without ruling out fairly basic questions.
  • Would some meat-space get togethers help? Are they even practical given that we have circa 100 users with 500+ rep?
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    $\begingroup$ I honestly don't understand the big hit you are talking about. Do you believe that as soon as TP.SE is launched most of the users here will leave for it? This idea is so preposterous that it's not even funny... If such a thing were to happen, it'd have happened already (which, as you can check, isn't the case); also, TP.SE's level is supposed to be intentionally very high which probably means at least 90% of the phy.SE users won't find it interesting. Also, I am probably not talking just for myself when I say that personally I see no reason to leave phy.SE when TP.SE will have launched... $\endgroup$ – Marek Jul 19 '11 at 8:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Marek: It's not that users will leave here in droves. The growth and support of this site is already somewhat anemic. Also anemic is the support for that 2nd proposal; it's been dragging on for 8 months. So a site that is in desperate need of participation says "Let's divide the subject matter between two sites!" Does that also sound somewhat "preposterous?" That's the question I am struggling with; Combine forces in cooperation? or watch two site/proposals plod along status quo? $\endgroup$ – Robert Cartaino Jul 19 '11 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Robert: I have no idea how phy.SE is doing (when I had asked for analytics once I was told that they were private and only disclosed to mods) besides my basic observation that tells me that it's pretty much same as ever (which probably isn't healthy, I'd agree). But I don't think the forces are splitting. People over at TP.SE proposal simply aren't interested in this site and I see no way to force them (nor would I want to). In my opinion these are just two very distinct projects with only a little overlap. So I'd say let them both plod along and see where they get... $\endgroup$ – Marek Jul 19 '11 at 14:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Marek: The details of the analytics are supposed to be kept private, but I believe I can say that our traffic levels on this site have been basically stagnant ever since the middle of the public beta. Every once in a while we get a spike in activity, most notably when we got linked from Cosmic Variance, but it never translates into a long-term increase in activity. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jul 19 '11 at 17:19
  • $\begingroup$ Also I think the "hit" being discussed would be the fact that TP.SE and physics.SE will be competing for new members in the future; sure, people can be members of both sites, but it's not so trivial to be an active contributor at multiple sites. It's not so much a sudden "hit," I suppose, but rather an extended drain. $\endgroup$ – David Z Jul 19 '11 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for requiring references. On the other hand, you will need a very strong moderator team to actually police this (which includes checking the references, chasing users that don't comply, deciding what to do with answers which are crap, etc. etc.). Also, while it will certainly improve the quality of answers, it will also disappoint a bunch of your users who are lazy and don't care or think it's a problem to have wrong answers on the site. $\endgroup$ – Sklivvz Jul 23 '11 at 11:02
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I find the assertion that the level of physicists on this site are too low to be professional puzzling. Much of my hypothesis for bringing that proposal back into this community is based how successfully this Physics SE has become one tremendous, all-inclusive Physics resource, welcoming to all level of questions. The top on-topic questions from that proposal seem to be perfectly welcome here. I keep hearing how effective the Physics community has been in successfully integrated all the levels of Physics questions into this site.

To create a separate site, we would have to show that the bulk of question from that proposal do not currently have a home on Stack Exchange. I read through the top on topic questions and the subjects seem to be doing fine on this site. I see no sign that a more professional scope of question questions are being put out based on these "theoretical" subjects and I don't find the level of question on this site an embarrassment to the professional community.

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    $\begingroup$ It is not the case that this site is home to all level of questions. Research level questions are still sporadic at best. And the number of research level users who could answer those questions (if there were any) has went down too (the loss of prof. Jeff Harvey, Moshe/Hiatus, Eric Zaslow, Matt Reece and others is felt tremendously; some of them are hopefully just inactive for the moment). If it weren't for Luboš Motl, the site would be in horrible state from the research level perspective (well, it is anyway because I don't think it is healthy to have one user answer everything..). $\endgroup$ – Marek Jul 19 '11 at 8:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Marek: That's disturbing if what you are saying is true; that the "top" user on this site are leaving. You're not going to get some sort of magic do-over in that Theoretical Physics proposal. The support is not there. $\endgroup$ – Robert Cartaino Jul 19 '11 at 14:50
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    $\begingroup$ It's not about a do-over -- this site was never intended as a research level site and the presence of those users was purely accidental in my opinion and it doesn't surprise me in the least that they left. I know TP doesn't have much support but I hope it will get better once the site is launched. As for the academics, I suppose that might be the case (after all, there is nothing to attract professionals right now, except a vague potential for a good site) but it's still way better than most of the population here that consists mostly of physics fans. $\endgroup$ – Marek Jul 19 '11 at 15:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Robert: I really don't understand what you have in mind when you refer to 'professionals' in relation to the TP site (vs academics). You mention it a couple of times, but I have no idea what the distinction is supposed to be. Virtually everyone paid to do TP works in an academic institution. $\endgroup$ – Joe Fitzsimons Jul 21 '11 at 1:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Joe Fitzsimons: Maybe I don't have the terminology correct but my intention is to differentiate between the reported amateur/undergrad/pop culture community of this site versus the professional/theoretical/researcher/academic community that can, presumably, only exist on a separate Theoretical Physics site. $\endgroup$ – Robert Cartaino Jul 21 '11 at 1:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Robert: Ah I see. I thought you were trying to make a distinction between professional and academic. For example in this line 'And did you notice that the "academics" outnumber the "professionals" joining that proposal?' $\endgroup$ – Joe Fitzsimons Jul 21 '11 at 1:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Joe Fitzsimons: I see what you mean. The comment was largely parenthetical and irrelevant to the main point, so I removed it. $\endgroup$ – Robert Cartaino Jul 21 '11 at 2:01
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PhysicsStackExchange and MathsStackExchange are approximately on the same level when it comes to questions and answers, so doesn't it follow that the users should therefore be of the same calibre? Browse the user profiles and it does look as if this is indeed the case with Arturo Magidin being to mathstackexchange what Lubos is to physicsstackexchange. You then have below them highly talented people at around PhD level in their 20s, together with the more experienced professionals in their 30s and 40s and so on.

Generally, questions at the cutting edge of research are not asked at mathstackexchange.

A physicsoverflow is needed to copy the success of mathoverflow and not another theoretical-physicsstackexchange to disintegrate a site that adequately performs a useful service as it is.

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    $\begingroup$ You lost me in the last paragraph? PhysicsOverflow? $\endgroup$ – Robert Cartaino Jul 21 '11 at 15:22
  • $\begingroup$ "PhysicsOverflow" means a physics site in the style of MathOverflow, where non-research-level questions are not tolerated. $\endgroup$ – nibot Jul 21 '11 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ @user2146: What you describe as PhysicsOverflow is exactly what the TP stackexchange is proposed to be. Have a read of the proposal. It is certainly not meant to be a subdiscipline site. $\endgroup$ – Joe Fitzsimons Jul 21 '11 at 16:12
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    $\begingroup$ @joe yes you're right. I'm just concerned that professionals might misinterpret it on the same level as physicsstackexchange. I just don't understand the inconsistency between mathstackexchange, physicsstackexchange being named in the same way, and then maths research naming itself mathoverflow, while physics research renames itself theoretical-physicsstackexchange. Mathoverflow is now a brand that has high quality associated with it and I don't see why the physics community can't capitalise on that branding. $\endgroup$ – Larry Harson Jul 21 '11 at 20:07
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    $\begingroup$ @user2146: cstheory.se is a similar level to MathOverflow, and seems quite successful, but doesn't use the 'overflow' branding (indeed it was explicitly rejected in early discussions). That said, if all that is needed to keep the TP proposal is a minor name change, then the choice is an easy one. $\endgroup$ – Joe Fitzsimons Jul 21 '11 at 21:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Joe cstheory.se does indeed seem to work and therefore so should tp.se. I'd down vote my answer if I could ;) $\endgroup$ – Larry Harson Jul 22 '11 at 2:28
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    $\begingroup$ @user2146: just delete it then, no big deal; although the discussion here seems useful so you might consider letting it stay. I'd like to also add one bit of information: mathoverflow is named the way it is because a) it's an older site originating in the *overflow age and before the *.stackexchange age, build on the older software; and b) not affiliated with *.stackexchange guys in any way AFAIK. $\endgroup$ – Marek Jul 22 '11 at 11:22
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    $\begingroup$ The assertion that Arturo is to Math.SE what Lubos is to this site is so ridiculously wrong it isn't even funny. Lubos is prominent because he is at present the expert on this site, and he answers a lot of questions. Arturo, however, chooses to answer in several special fields that he is expert in, but provides extremely well-written answers. (Look at his ridiculous number of Nice Answer-type badges.) $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Jul 22 '11 at 17:05
  • $\begingroup$ @user2146: For what it's worth, I didn't downvote your answer, I just I should clarify what the TP proposal is. $\endgroup$ – Joe Fitzsimons Jul 22 '11 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Willie: Take care that Lubos is the expert on two classes of highly mathematical theory, and while quantum field theories and general relativity are the public face of physics to many people they are very far from all of physics. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Jul 23 '11 at 1:39
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    $\begingroup$ @dmckee: you repeat this claim over and over and while it's true "out there" it's completely wrong both for TP.SE (obviously) but also for phy.SE. Just look at the tags -- most of the questions are QM, QFT, SR, GR, EM, string theory while the interest in "all of physics" that you mention seems to be trailing far behind... $\endgroup$ – Marek Jul 23 '11 at 6:20
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I think lack of potential traffic at the proposed tp.se site is going to make it very difficult to keep alive even in the short term.

Let's make a crude prediction of likely traffic at tp.se based upon that which exists for math.stackexchange and mathoverflow.net. The number of new questions asked within six hours for the sites are

math.stackexchange 22, mathoverflow 4, physics.stackexchange 4, tp.stackexchange ? = 4*4/22

Which makes 3 high quality questions/day at the proposed site.

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