As has been noted in the past, particularly in Question self-destruction: why don't experts ask more questions? and in Does reputation correlate with the question-to-answer ratio?, and also here, this site has the peculiarity that, in overwhelming proportion, our 'expert' users, by multiple measures, tend to ask very few questions. Now, whether this is a 'bad' thing or not is debatable, but I think most people would agree that it would probably be beneficial to the site's level and interestingness if more of our 'expert' users asked more questions.
Now, I just passed a question-asking milestone (I am as of today the single recipient of the socratic badge in the first three pages of the rep table), and I'd like to use the occasion to have a critical look at my question-asking history and pick out patterns and question types that I think would benefit the site, and the internet at large, if they saw more widespread use from our more experienced users.
In particular, I'm increasingly bugged by arguments along the lines of "but I'm paid to ask questions", which can be seen e.g. here (and heck, which I've repeated myself, e.g. here), but which on further inspection just don't work. For one, the existence of MathOverflow, a place with very high-quality content powered by people whose day jobs typically include asking questions, pokes a gaping hole in that argument. More generally, though, if you tune your antennas to the right frequency, there's plenty of questions to be had about the world - many more than can rightfully fit inside anyone's research programme.
More importantly, I think that good questions improve the site and by extension they do improve the internet. For many of the patterns below, they're things that I could probably have worked out on my own (or just let go without following them up), but for which I think the Q&A threads they've left behind form a valuable lasting resource that benefits everyone in the long term.
So, without further ado, here are some ways to ask questions that I think are perfectly compatible with the life of an 'expert' user of this site (in the various meanings of the term) which I think would be very valuable if they were used more often.
- The nagging, persistent question that you've never really had the time to get around to researching, and which isn't really crucial to your research anyways. Let's face it: you're never going to get round to looking it up, but if you ask it here you can both get an answer and help a generation of students behind you to avoid that hurdle. Example: Do free-electron lasers actually lase?
- Questions that spring out during teaching, either during preparation or during interaction with students. There's nothing quite like teaching a subject to make you aware of the holes in how you learned it, and students' questions can often point out weak spots in how some topic is taught over a wide range of textbooks - so that a Q&A addressing that can be a very valuable learning resource for a wide population of students. Example: What is the physical meaning of commutators in quantum mechanics?
Questions which arise from reading about recent developments in the scientific press. This often happens with parts of the literature one isn't all that familiar with, but where one can often point out loose ends that are left hanging by the scientific press and that are not easy to puzzle out from the primary literature, and where a decisive Q&A here would be a good resource for the rest of the internet. Moreover, as an instructor, one is sometimes better placed than the students to ask the question in an optimized form that will draw out better answers. Examples: Can we infer the existence of periodic solutions to the three-body problem from numerical evidence?, Why are pear-shaped nuclei possible?, "Cloud maps" of a nearby brown dwarf: what do they actually show?
Questions that arise from reading the primary literature closer to your field, but where you could use a wider perspective or a closer reading from someone with more experience. Example: Optical chirality and its possible hierarchy of generalizations
Questions drilling down on the specifics where the available information on a relevant topic is very vague, and where a good overview would be beneficial to everyone. Example: What are the proposed realizations in the New SI for the kilogram, ampere, kelvin and mole?
The focused self-answered Q&A: places where there's a specific technical point that repeatedly gets lost in the telling in most mainstream resources, and where adding a well-documented Q&A can help put the issue to bed. Examples: How does one account for the momentum of an absorbed photon?, Are orbitals observable physical quantities in a many-electron setting?
The sprawling self-answered Q&A: places where there's a gap in the existing coverage and you feel qualified to (and have the time to) do an in-depth dive into the topic, and essentially write a blog post for future reference. Example: Square bracket notation for dimensions and units: usage and conventions
The follow-up question: you see a nice question (or a nice answer) and you see that there is some aspect which is also interesting but which isn't addressed in the existing answers, and for which a follow-up post forms a valuable complement. Examples: How long does a positron last in the Sun's core?, How much variability was there in the O=16 atomic mass standard, and how does it compare to the shift to the current carbon standard?, How would cold neutrinos get trapped by stars?, What's the difference between a realization, a representation and an implementation in metrology?
The follow-up Q&A: you see a nice question (or a nice answer) and you see a missing aspect where you know the answer, and you think it's a valuable thing to add, but it doesn't really fit in as an answer to the existing thread. So, just add it as a follow-up and provide an answer. Example: How different can the directions of angular momentum and angular velocity be?
Technique questions that are genuinely valuable to your research: you're doing some relatively standard analysis as part of your research, and you find that the easily-accessible resources make it a drag to find the details on the application of the method. Instead of (or in parallel to) doing a deep dive into what should be easy-to-find information, asking here can take out the hassle (or be a place to document your findings if you find the solution yourself) and form a valuable resource for others in a similar situation. Example: How can I get the axes of the polarization ellipse from the Jones vector of the light?
Technique questions that are genuinely valuable to your research, where you need to understand a tough technical paper in an area you're not that familiar with, but you're just swamped by the literature and you could use a hand. Example: How do higher-order optical chiralities look like?
Technique questions where you're not actively missing something, but where the existing tools for doing some task, or, say, characterizing some object, are vaguely unsatisfactory, and there is some hope that some other corner of physics has developed more sophisticated tools for equivalent cases. Example: What eigenvector-like tools are there for analyzing tensors of rank three and higher?
The vague and unexplained bit of folklore. I think we've all seen it: there's some random piece of information where everyone in the field "knows" something (even if from some perspectives it could be a pretty dubious claim), but few people can actually source that information to a reliable origin. A question here can sharpen the question to something a good deal more specific, and it can help dispel myths or put vague folklore on a more solid foundation. Example: Are non-zero-area pulses of electromagnetic radiation possible?
Questions aimed at clarifying some obscure concept in the literature. You find some complicated and technical object in the literature, and really it'd be for the best if it got brought down a notch What symmetry is associated with conservation of Lipkin's zilch?
Questions exploring the flip-side of a common (mis)conception: places where the typical mindset says "X always happens", but if you turn off some implicit assumption Y, the result is no longer true. A good Q&A exploring what happens if Y is no longer true can be quite valuable in understanding why X is an important result. Example: How do coherent isotropic radiators evade the hairy-ball theorem?
Questions tackling a common misconception head-on: for the times when a common misconception is best handled by asking it at point-blank range: "is Z true?", just to set the record straight. Example: Must magnetic field lines close upon themselves or go to infinity?
The idle wondering. We don't always have to launch into full deep-dive mode at the prompt of some random thought - but it can make for a nice Q&A, particularly if the site has a large population of people who know the relevant field much better than you do, or if the question makes for good practice for some student somewhere. Examples: How many naked-eye stars have 'died' since they emitted the light we are seeing?, For a constant magnetic field, is there a gauge with both canonical momenta conserved?, Do any elements form stable doubly-charged negative ions?
The honest-to-goodness confusion, over terminology or whatever else. It's OK to ask, you know. Example: $p\ dq$ is the "tautological" one-form?
I'll shut up now, so over to you: go out and ask questions!