I've been meaning to ask about the timeline of discovery of a certain physical phenomenon on the main site, but I thought I should probably ask a more general question here on meta to clear the air:

Would questions on the history of physics be okay to ask?

(That is, presuming of course that the questioner has already looked at Wikipedia and other places, and needs further clarification/explanation).


3 Answers 3

I think that questions like "What were some early explanations of [phenomena], and why were they discarded in favor of [later theory]?" are sufficiently focused on physics to be considered. Though there is some risk that the topic will be too broad to be effectively addressed in the Q&A format.

I'm less certain about questions like

  1. What is the source of the appellation "barn" for the unit of nuclear cross-section?
  2. What is the significance and meaning of "Who ordered that?"
  3. Is it true that [Big Name] and [Famous Personality] had a bet about [Theory]? Who took which side? Who won?

This kind of question has little physics content, but they are part of the culture of our discipline.

Good examples there. –  David Z Nov 22 '10 at 20:27
(by which I meant, I think your numbered examples are good examples of "history of physics" questions that are not really about physics and probably shouldn't be asked here.) –  David Z Nov 23 '10 at 4:44
dmckee also suggested my question as a good example: Why are quark types known as flavors? –  Jaime Soto Dec 1 '10 at 21:07

hmm... well, physics certainly does have a history, and it's useful to know something about that history, but as a rule, physicists tend not to care about it in the sense that a historian would. That is, the details of when certain experiments were performed or when certain papers were published wind up being less important than the methodology and results of the experiments/papers themselves. So a question that just asks about the dates when certain things happened, or the order in which they happened, is probably off-topic here, but asking about the actual physics work that has been done in a particular area should be fine.

To provide an example (not the greatest), asking "What events constitute the November Revolution?" is not as good of a question as "How did the experiment that discovered the $J/\psi$ meson work?" (Of course both of these are well documented on Wikipedia and elsewhere.) Or, "When was WMAP first proposed?" is not as good as "What made WMAP so much better than previous CMB probes?" (although that last one may actually be more engineering than physics)

I guess it's sort of hard to tell in general. If you wanted a yes-or-no type answer, I'd say just ask the question, maybe with a link to this thread, and we'll see if it gets closed. (I promise not to downvote)

I disargree in part because history (sic!) proved that the time frame is important. –  BandGap Jun 18 '12 at 9:36
(Unfortunately my edit took to long and now I have to open another coment!) Consider the experiments by Hahn, Meitner and Strassmann discovering nuclear fission. Had they discovered it only a couple of months later the research might not have been published, preventing the developement of the nuclear fisson bomb... So in this special case it might not even be so interesting how exactly they showed fisson but when they did it. –  BandGap Jun 18 '12 at 9:43

I recently put up a question about correcting myths in the history of Physics, which was closed, hopefully only temporarily. It referenced a lecture at the KITP, i.e. an audience of physicists.

I also point out that the same sorts of questions are accepted both in Mathoverflow and math.stackexchange and don't seem to do any harm there. I recall many such lectures in the Physics departments of several scientific institutions which were both very interesting and stimulating.

Suppose you are a HS kid or undergraduate somewhere, and wander onto this site. This could be quite helpful.


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