A Theoretical Physics Q and A site

I’ve become totally enamored with the CSTheory stack exchange site. It’s proving very addictive, but in exchange for the time I spend on the site I am finding that I am learning a lot of new things, and a few new tricks.

I had hoped that the Physics stack exchange site might become a similar resource for physicists (and I still very much self-identify as a physicist). Unfortunately this has turned out not to be the case. There was never a policy dictating that questions should be research level (as there was both for CSTheory and MathOverflow), and this has led to the majority of questions either being basic undergrad type questions or pop-sci question. As a result, there are also very many poor answers which contain common misconceptions, but which get up-voted. Consequently, I don’t think the site is likely to be an attractive propositions for active researchers.

However, I don’t want to just complain and not offer a solution, so I have set up a proposal for a Theoretical Physics stack exchange site. The aim of the site would be to provide a question and answers site aimed at research level questions only, akin to the CSTheory stack exchange site and MathOverflow. Personally I find both sites to be phenomenal resources, and I think it’s high time we physicists had something similar.

I proposed the site as being for theoretical and mathematical physics and not physics in general only because I think that spanning both theory and experiment might make the scope of the site too broad, making it harder to get good answers to specific questions in any one area. Experimentalists with theory questions (or better yet, theory answers) are of course encouraged to participate.

The process of defining the site is entirely democratic, so you don’t need to worry about whether you trust my judgement or not. If the site reaches beta temporary moderators are elected by the community. This is also why it is important to have a solid group of physicists early on, to set the level and tone of the site.

So, if you are a physicist and this sounds like something that might interest you, why not visit and help shape the scope and level of the site by submitting sample questions or voting on whether you think the questions submitted by others would be consistent with such a site?

6 Responses to “A Theoretical Physics Q and A site”

  1. Cedric H. Says:

    Altough I understand the motivations for this new site (on meta, the new proposal and this post) I disagree on

    * “Unfortunately this has turned out not to be the case.” Physics SE is only on its first week of public beta and has a good user base of phd students or related that agree that the site is not high level enough: if we “fight” harder I think it is still time to change physics se …

    * I still don’t understand why you make it “theoretical” physics and reject experimental topics: both can be research level and a community containing theorists and experimentalists seem much more interesting to me.

  2. Sigoldberg1 Says:

    Thanks for your approach, but I also wonder about the precise name. “Theoretical/Experimental”? “Research Level Physics SE”? “PhysicsOverflow”? Does the precise name really matter? Obviously, theoreticians also analyze and suggest experiments.

    Your current proposal under its current name has far too good a start to waste, however, so maybe you should just include a few appropriate questions about experiments there, which we could all upvote as good on topic examples.

  3. Joe Fitzsimons Says:

    Thanks for your comments. I suggested Theoretical Physics in part because I am a theoretical physicist. TP is already a massive area, much broader than theoretical computer science (which was the model I was working with due to the success of the CSTheory site), and I simply think that it is a good size for a stack exchange site. Experimental physics is an even bigger area, and my concern was partly that combining the two would give an area so large that we would be unlikely to ever have a sufficiently large userbase to cover all parts to a reasonable level. The other reason is simply that there is a fairly clear line between theorists and experimentalists in terms of our day to day work, and I think that it makes sense for each community to have its own StackExchange (assuming experimentalists want such a site). The suggestion isn’t that we ban experimentalists. I would be very much against that. It is simply that the focus of this particular site should be on research-level theory.

  4. anonymous Says:

    I see people have two main concerns:

    1. there will be too many sites for physics if this proposal is mainly focused on theoretical physics. I don’t think this is a big concern though, this aslo happens quite frequently on MathOverflow, Math.SE, cstheory.SE, stats.SE. I can post my question first on the site that I think is more appropriate and if I don’t get an answer I cross-post it on the next appropriate one. Sometimes people suggest that the question is more appropriate on another one. There is a continuous interaction between these sites. Thus I think having three physics sites (Physics.SE, TP.SE, Experimental Physics.SE) should not be a problem.

    2. The other concern is about the site no getting off. Some seem to be seriously concerned about this because it took too long for Physics.SE to get into beta, and NaturalScience.SE is still in the definition stage. This seems to be a more serious concern, but I would expect a theoretical physicist support a experimental physics site and vice versa. So the question is are there enough questions and enough experts interested in having research-level SE Q&A sites? I think the answer is definitely positive as there are more theoretical physicists and experimental physicists than there are theoretical computer scientists, Artificial Intelligence has a site separate from cstheory and there are doing very well. But I would still suggest a little bit of caution, let’s see how TP.SE goes and if it is successful then we can all start a EP.SE.

  5. anonymous Says:

    I would also suggest having a look at the numbers for followers, commitments, and beta for cstheory and physics:

    —-
    Physics.SE: http://area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/1908/physics

    committed users

    234 users committed
    13.2% signed up for beta
    9.8% fulfilled commitment

    followers

    145 users followed
    11% signed up for beta

    —-
    cstheory.SE: http://area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/8766?phase=beta

    committed users

    509 users committed
    64% signed up for beta
    8.1% fulfilled commitment

    followers

    180 users followed
    62.2% signed up for beta
    —-

    One of the problem with Physics.SE seems to be that most of followers did not commit to the site, and most of those who committed did not sign up for the beta. My guess is that either they changed their mind about the site (probably because the target for the site was not clear and later it went towards something they did not liked). Another factor can be that there was not enough time spent on getting researchers, seeing the name of a few famous physicists can have a huge effect on attracting graduate students to the proposal.

  6. Daniel Apon Says:

    Good luck, Joe!

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