There are more and more questions, which are formulted like "Can you explain that without math?" or "I know that there is math, but is there an explanation in plain words?" or even "Can you tell without doing actual calculation?"

I feel uneasy about them: mathematics is a language, it just helps to be rigorous and concrete, while we're asked not to use it. That is why such "plain words explanations" often lead to misunderstandings and even give rise new popular misconceptions.

Of course I'm not telling that one always must throw bunch of formulae in a poor fellow's face. I'm just against another extreme "no mathematics at all" means "no physics at all" as well. Maybe we should if not forbid, then at least discourage such kind of questions?

I would simply encourage the people who answer to ignore the "pressure" from the author of the question and to answer in the most honest way, whatever it is. If some issue in physics completely depends on some maths, this fact should be made obvious. On the other hand, there are many questions whose answers may be formulated more intuitively and there's no reason to ban these answers, either. So my recommendation is for the readers who are going to answer to simply ignore statements included in the questions such as "you are not allowed to think XY". ;-) That's true for bogus assumptions, too. – Luboš Motl Feb 16 '11 at 8:24
Please compare also – Gerard Feb 23 '11 at 20:41

I, too, worry about these questions.

In principle, they're fine. I mean, Feynmann did a really amazing job explaining QED with no math, right?


  • Mathless explanations of non-trivial subjects are often are longer (sometimes much longer) than math enabled ones. This affects how "big" a topic can be handled in the Q&A format.

  • Without great care, explanation by analogy leads to follow-up question based on cases where the analogy breaks. In other words, physics by analogy is often misleading or outright wrong.

  • To whatever extent we're trying to "keep the level up" here, this risk pulling it down.

+1 especially for your second bullet point. Not to say that every question necessarily needs to have a mathematical answer (otherwise it'd be math.SE, not physics.SE), but we should be able to back up our reasoning with math when it seems appropriate. – David Z Feb 13 '11 at 21:56
Whenever math is critical ("Why is relativity true and what is a Lorentz transformation - but no math!") I think we should make it a general policy to inform the original poster of how precarious their request is. Perhaps citing this post - or just pasting in these bullet points. Some sort of sign that says "Warning: The following answer is approximate; the real answer can only be understood mathematically" before every non-math answer. – spencer nelson Feb 13 '11 at 22:26
@Spencer Nelson, whatever you called "the real answer" is also an approximation, with math, it can be, at most just more precise.. – HDE Mar 3 '11 at 15:44
You could counter that Feynman made it a huge chunk of his lifes work to do so. That is a lot more effort than most answerers on any SO site take so its the exception to the rule. It only got published about 5-10 years before his death iirc. – John Nicholas Mar 10 at 9:43

Why not support both types of answers? E.g., someone who is inclined to answer with math, could answer with math, and someone who is inclined to answer without math could answer without math?

That is my point. But I'm not talking about answers I'm talking about questions, that do not allow one to "answer with math". – Kostya Feb 16 '11 at 23:19

I encountered the opposite issue: some people ask for precise definition, or mathematical exposition, or other technical sounding request, of some concept they clearly don’t understand. I tend to reply in words to that, despite the request. I think the problem with the “no math” request is more that it tends to accompany questions that are not well defined and potentially too elementary. This is an independent issue though.

Two good points. The issue is complicated and possibly doesn't admit a general rule. – dmckee Feb 13 '11 at 22:19

I believe that, most of the time, these questions are actually symptomatic of a different problem. A lot of us here tend to give answers in the most complicated and advanced language possible. This is a great disservice to anybody with less advanced mathematical abilities. I suspect that what the asker actually means is "please answer this in a way that I can understand." When they say "no math please" I see it as an overreaction, intended to balance out our own tendency to explain simple things in complex terms.

In other words, when somebody who is clearly at a high school or early undergraduate level comes around, asking something valid but simple, for example "Why does a projectile follow a parabolic path," we really need to avoid the temptation to give an answer in terms of number theoretic symmetry groups, Lagrangian dynamics, and quantum field theory!

Of course, there is room for the more advanced explanation, and it is often good to have that answer in addition to the simpler one. More advanced readers should be able to find a response at their level; I don't debate that. Ultimately, though, if we want to stop people from asking for "no math please" then we need people to feel that if they ask a question using intermediate level language, they will get at least one response that is both correct, and expressed at an intermediate level.

Edit: I'd just like to clarify that I'm speaking here in generalities. I agree that there are plenty of cases where a "no math please" question cannot be properly answered without math.

I don't think anybody (and in particular I) is using math just for the sake of itself. On the contrary, I am usually trying to give as simple and intuitive explanation as I can. When it comes out too advanced it's either because: 1) it can't be explained in simpler way, otherwise something important would be lost along the way; or 2) I can't explain it any simpler (because otherwise I'd have done it). – Marek Feb 18 '11 at 21:30
@Marek: I'm sorry, I realize that given our exchange earlier this looks like a jab at you personally. It is not meant to be! Admittedly, I think you are sometimes guilty of this, and our exchange is what prompted me to write this, but its something I've been trying to put into words for a while independent of any arguments you and I have had. I don't think you are "using math just for the sake of itself" or trying to be intentionally complicated. You're one of the most helpful people here, and I don't mean to imply otherwise when we argue. – Colin K Feb 18 '11 at 22:02
no problem, I didn't take that personally at all. I just wanted to make clear the reason I use math so often. – Marek Feb 18 '11 at 22:08
@Marek: The problem of course is that something mathematical which is obvious and clear to you might be completely incomprehensible to someone who doesn't have the necessary understanding of math. I'd not necessarily omit the math, but I'd try to explain in a way that you can follow even without the math (those who understand the math can easily skip parts of the explanation which effectively duplicate the mathematics). If done really well, it may even help in understanding the math involved. Disclaimer: I'm new here, so I don't know how you answer questions, just reacted to your comment. – celtschk Jan 16 '12 at 7:11
Haha, you must be new here :) – Colin K Jul 3 '13 at 10:46

Compare this answer on another physics-math related question.

People visiting the site are really looking for physical insight/understanding.
When the language is math, it may well be that mathematical rigorousness and exactness hides the fact that on a physical level one cannot really explain what is going on.

That being said, please note that I am not opposed to math or rigourness, on the contrary.
But I am even more interested in trying to understand what is "really" going on under the hood of math. And also in this physical field I am looking for "exactness" - please don't say its just math and one shouldn't try to understand physics. Its my personal opinion that that is the main challenge in theoretical physics today.

Admittedly this is a minority opinion, but I hope the site will also be a place for some of the minorities - would it be interesting enough otherwise?

I don't beleive that such things as "physical level" and "what is really going on" are of any use. These are usually just "blah-blah", which everyone understands their own way. At least I've never seen any counterexamples to it. – Kostya Feb 15 '11 at 23:04
@Kostya: Too strong. Physical intuition is real and useful. 'Course, it is also the refuge behind which some people hide when they want to insist that a theory is wrong but they don't "get" the math. – dmckee Feb 16 '11 at 4:30
@dmckee: I do not insist that that is completely right -- I just don't believe. Can give an example, where "Physical intuition is real and useful"? – Kostya Feb 16 '11 at 9:26
@Kostya: ok, you don't see it, you don't believe it - tough, no problem. But my answer was a quite balanced sketch of a minority position - are you not being intolerant? – Gerard Feb 16 '11 at 9:59
@Kostya: an example is Einstein who always insisted that he was led by "physics" intuition; he also unmistakebly stated that he couldn't help but feel irritated by some math wizards who only wanted to get the math right. – Gerard Feb 16 '11 at 10:03
Well, I have no choice but to accept that Einstein is an example of a physical phenomenon, where "Physical intuition is real and useful"... – Kostya Feb 16 '11 at 10:38

It seems that people of varied interests,/calibers are members of the physics.stackexchange. The level of complexity, assuming that inclusion of mathematics adds to complexity of a discussion in general, of questions/answers should be matching to that of the median audience. (median of mean/median/mode). Ideal situation is most of questions are of "popular science" level, few questions below that level, few above, and yet a few of advanced or esoteric levels.

I suspect you will find that most of the regulars here do not regard 'most of questions are of "popular science" level' as an 'Ideal situation'. – dmckee Jun 27 '11 at 23:35
May be can be for this "ideal situation". – MBN Jun 28 '11 at 4:58
How is that ideal? Popular science is the lowest level that can ever be accepted, and not more than 0.5% of the questions should be popular science. The rest of the 99.5% should be proper physics. – centralcharge Jun 22 '13 at 3:37

"no one is using maths just for its own sake" ? Au contraire, all too many answers simply calculate, throwing spherical harmonics at the problem, without considering the physical meaning (or possible symmetries) at all. Yes, maths is a language, but as with all writing, one should strive to use the simplest words possible, plain English, and not a slew of catch-phrases and verbiage.

Whether the OP requests it or not, we should always strive to use as little maths as possible, even at the cost of imprecision and not making it clear how it should be generalised to other situations. This is parallel to the common feeling among mathematicians that the best proof is a "conceptual" one, that uses the properties of the objects concerned, and as few formulas as possible, rather than "a tedious calculation yields the result. The details are omitted for reasons of space".

You can also see a question to become the target of close votes as "unclear", downvotes, and insistent comments telling the poster that it isn't clear what he's asking when he has clearly stated that he's looking for a mathematical proof of a physics law with its non-trivial (ex.: commutations integral/derivative signs) steps explained (which is what "real physics" is about, at the opposite end of the spectrum where divulgation lies), which has been very surprising for me... – Self-teaching worker Feb 12 at 14:16
Ex.: this has attracted these comments. – Self-teaching worker Feb 12 at 14:17

Math is itself no math, any math symbol or theorem can be ultimately explained without math.

open your mind before downvote... or after =) – HDE Feb 17 '11 at 15:20
Downvotes are themselves no downvotes. Any downvote count or tally can ultimately by explained without downvotes. – Mark Eichenlaub Feb 18 '11 at 20:30

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .