Physics Q&A web site

 I learned (from the Cosmic Variance blog) about a Web site with interesting discussions of a wide variety of questions in physics. It reminded me of some parts of my misspent youth.

Back in the 1990s, I spent a lot of time reading and posting articles on the various physics and astronomy Usenet newsgroups. For those who don’t know, newsgroups are forums in which people can discuss a huge variety of topics. They allowed freewheeling electronic communication back in the days before blogs, and even before the invention of the Web. Last time I checked, Usenet newsgroups still existed, but with all the other options out there nowadays, they don’t play the same role they used to.

Newsgroups had participants with a wide variety of backgrounds and interests. Participants in the physics newsgroups included graduate and undergraduate students, professional scientists, and tons and tons of interested laypeople. The freedom of anybody to participate was both a blessing and a curse. It made for a lot of variety, of course, but it also meant that discussions could easily be hijacked by crackpots. Some of the crackpots were highly entertaining, but eventually most serious people would get frustrated with all the noise and go away.

One solution to this problem was moderated newsgroups. I was one of the moderators of the group sci.physics.research for quite a while. One of us moderators would have to approve each post before it could appear in the newsgroup. The big problem with this, of course, was that it was labor-intensive.

OK, that’s it for the history lesson. What reminded me of all this is the Web site Physics Stack Exchange, which aims to produce a similar sort of forum for discussion of physics questions. The site has moderators, but they don’t approve each post manually as we did. Rather, the participants in the group vote answers up or down, so that the ones that are deemed most useful rise to the top. There’s a complicated set of rules whereby only people who have earned the right (through useful participation in the past) are allowed to vote.

Once I started looking at it, I couldn’t resist posting some answers of my own.

There’s a lot of good stuff there. Check it out, and participate if you’re interested!

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

5 thoughts on “Physics Q&A web site”

  1. I am still one of the moderators of sci.physics.research. It seems to me that while the relative amount of discussion in newsgroups is now less, this is mainly because there are more blogs etc; the absolute amount, at least in the groups I follow, is about the same.

    Yes, blogs, forums etc provide some more features, but I still prefer newsgroups. Why? 1. I read all groups with the same interface, edit with the same editor, there is the same look and feel etc. 2. By default, one sees only new posts, either original posts or followups to other posts. Thus, it is easy to catch up since one doesn’t have to waste time finding out how far one read last time. I fire up my newsreader and then in one session see all new posts in all new groups, threaded by subject and references to previous posts. 3. With any good newsreader, one can blend out threads one is not interested in and just read the new posts in interesting threads. 4. One can post the same article to more than one newsgroup, but people who read both will by default see it only once.

    All the young dudes don’t realise how good it was in the good old days—at least in this respect.

  2. You’re certainly right about these advantages. As far as I can tell, there’s no good way on the Stack Exchange site to see just the new stuff in the threads you’re interested in: you have to just cycle back to them manually and scan for new material. Maybe I’m missing something — the site is quite complicated — but if it’s true that there’s no good way to do that it’s a huge disadvantage.

    I stopped reading Usenet when my university dropped its news server. I know I could have found others, but I didn’t bother, and realistically it’s not going to happen now. But I’m glad to know that things are still going along, and I’m very impressed that you’ve stuck it out as moderator for so long!

  3. Since many blogs, forums etc are financed (at least partially) by ads, helping the users find what they want quickly would be contraproductive.

    I follow a dozen or so blogs and forums and a dozen or so newsgroups. The total amount of traffic is comparable, but keeping up with usenet is much more efficient.

    One of the problems with our old newsgroup moderation was de- and re-activating. It worked, but required some effort not only on our part but also on the part of volunteers running the redirection. When NCAR dropped usenet (and hence the redirection service for moderated groups), I set up such a service from scratch at home and it has been working well. I also created a script so that moderators can de- and re-activate themselves at will. Maybe because it has become easier (but mainly due to their dedication), the other moderators have been on board for a while and all seem happy to continue.

  4. Convoluted, but I read the post, went to the site, found your post there, and might have a solution to the multiverse material question, but it’s specific to you, so I thought I’d post here. Ori Belkind in philosophy has a bunch of philosophical papers discussing the anthropic principle, etc from his Philosophy of Physics class. And the best part of philosophical papers is that they don’t require much math or physics heavy lifting. Some of them even make good points.

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