Why did Theoretical Physics fail?

Theoretical Physics (TP or TP.SE), a Stack Exchange site for research-level questions, is going to be closed.

It was clear that the traffic was declining, even though the quality of questions (and answers) was actually good. Among the community there were discussions about the nature of the problem and how to tackle it (for example, Rejuvenating the site, my opinion hard-copied below, as the link is now dead).

The question is what were the main problems of TP.SE?

I am asking this to have a broader perspective on the success (and failure) of Stack Exchange beta sites. It makes a difference, if the problem could be solved with the proper care or if a particular topic is doomed from its very beginning (for example, it is too narrow, too difficult, or too subjective).

REMARKS:

• This question is not about the closure, but about the stagnation itself. I (and I guess most of the TP.SE community as well) perfectly understand that under the current circumstances site won't flourish (unless a miracle happens).
• There is little overlap with physics.SE -- very rarely was there a doubt whether a question should be migrated. If anyone is interested in why we split, here are some links. In short: researchers were diluted among a vast amount of high-school / layman questions (and it is way easier to ask a layman question in physics than in, say, programming) and by trial and error we learned that it is almost impossible to maintain a research-oriented community there.
• Of course 'theoretical physics' has a relatively narrow community. However, cstheory.SE works well (arguably, with an even smaller set of people doing it). And MathOverflow (Stack Exchange1.0), with roughly a similar size of the target group, succeeded greatly.

My opinion which I posted originally on meta.TP.SE:

In my opinion, the biggest problems is the lack of a critical mass of people willing to contribute. Coverage of a variety of topics is also important, but is to be dealt after the first issue is solved.

Most of the physicists I talked to like the idea of TP.SE, but they don't contribute because they:

• don't have time or will to translate their problem into question form (as it typically takes longer to provide a good enough description in text than during a face-to-face discussion),
• are afraid of asking something too simple (*),
• don't want to share credit or are afraid of their idea being stolen,
• are kind of conservative - either they don't use new Internet tools that much or just don't use something unless it is a standard in their field/group,
• or they judge a thing by its cover and perceive a forum-like thing as something that will waste their time.

I think that the most important problem here is (*) - because either people tend to ask to complicated questions (and as they have been struggling to solve them for months it is unlikely that someone is going to instantly provide a solution) or just they don't ask at all. So, encouraging users to ask (even simple) questions may be crucial. A "simple" question by a PhD student or above may not be that simple at all.

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Sounds to me like it was "too close to Physics". – Cody Gray Apr 25 '12 at 22:05
According to Theoretical Physics - Area 51, the main problem were questions per day (1.6, while a healthy beta should have at least 15) and visits per day (256, while healthy beta should have at least 1,500). Theoretical Physics is probably just too narrow to survive on SE. – Dennis Apr 25 '12 at 22:24
This is probably covered by the newest blog post – Michael Mrozek Apr 25 '12 at 22:24
@MichaelMrozek - closing is only a symptom (no-one from the community was surprised). The question is on its underlying cause (i.e. why the site haven't succeed). – Piotr Migdal Apr 25 '12 at 22:29
Since the lack of incoming good questions was always an issue, I wonder if allowing some questions from reasonably advanced students of the "on topics" and otherwise well enough educated people could not have increased the traffic (without doing too much damage to the level or purpuse of the site) and saved TP.SE. The large barrier to ask here, as perceived from afar, may have contributed to the low inflow of good questions. I have myself a small number of questions at P.SE that could not be answered there because they are ... well ... still open / research level ... – Dilaton Apr 26 '12 at 7:03
Because Einstein was wrong? – Rosinante Apr 27 '12 at 16:08
@PiotrMigdal, "no-one was surprised"? May be I am being too naive, but I still hoped on something until have not seen the closed site – Alex 'qubeat' May 6 '12 at 13:26
@Alex'qubeat' You are right; I was too enthusiastic with the extrapolation of my skepticism. However, when there were discussions on meta.TP.SE, most contributors perceived that we were not growing in any way. – Piotr Migdal May 6 '12 at 13:50
@PiotrMigdal, TP contained about 1000 people, how much of them perceived such opinion? Did someone performed some investigation? – Alex 'qubeat' May 6 '12 at 16:40
@Alex'qubeat' As I said, judging by people who participated it discussions on meta; from a longer perspective it might look slightly more optimistic. And as I said, I shouldn't have used the expression 'no-one from the community'. – Piotr Migdal May 6 '12 at 16:47
@PiotrMigdal, In fact, I do not know, all that is too subjective, let's wait and see if idea about new place will work – Alex 'qubeat' May 6 '12 at 17:09
Because Toilet Paper SE was doomed to fail. – Emrakul Apr 27 '14 at 17:58

There were three major problems that I saw when looking at the site, all of which had been discussed on the site at one time or another:

1. A lot of overlap with Physics.SE, both in terms of topic and especially audience. Physics was already a bigger and more established site when it launched. This tended to siphon off questions that might've otherwise helped sustain it, when the ones that were asked were

2. Questions that took too long / too much effort to answer. Complex, interesting questions aren't necessarily a bad thing in and of themselves, but they tend to bring in fewer casual readers and can become a major problem when you have

3. A small and ever-shrinking audience of regular users. Theoretical Physics made a truly impressive effort to keep participation up on the questions it did get, but as the influx of questions and daily visitors dropped off this became more and more of a struggle.

Any one of these would have been problematic, but the combination of all three together fed into each other and thwarted efforts to change the direction.

There are other sites in similar positions, and while I sincerely hope we can avoid the same downward trajectory, in truth the core problem is one of scope and audience: if neither one is big enough to be sustainable, the site eventually dies.

My biggest reason for wanting to step in and close Theoretical Physics now is the hope that by merging into Physics we can avoid that slow and painful death. Sadly, not every site has that opportunity.

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Someone noted that Ling has almost exactly the same stats as TP, should they be concerned or are they more safe because of less overlap (and I don't know how they fare on #2/#3) – Ben Brocka Apr 26 '12 at 3:03
@Ben: absolutely - any site that looks like that should be realizing that they have some serious work to do. The primary difference when looking at the two was that Ling was extremely small and has slowly been getting bigger, while Theoretical Physics got off to a reasonably good start and has been trending down ever since (I'm generalizing a bit here, since it depends on what you look at - but there's a reasonable hope that Linguistics is digging its way out after a rocky start). – Shog9 Apr 26 '12 at 3:20
@BenBrocka and cc Shog9, Linguistics is not one of those sites with a huge traffic, but like Shog9 said, we're "digging our way out". Our visits, apart from a little stop recently, are increasing at a slow but steady pace. I think we'll be getting soon beyond the 300 v/day limit. I'm not saying we're "safe", we're not yet. But we'll do our best. :) I have raised (again) the issue here. If anyone wants to help us, any experience is welcome! – Alenanno Apr 26 '12 at 17:01
@Alenanno I'm concerned because CogSci is close-ish to the same boat as Ling, though we're a lot younger. Thanks for the info. – Ben Brocka Apr 26 '12 at 17:08
Shog: could you tell me the reasons behind closing sites? What makes a site "sustainable"? And what are the disadvantages of just keeping a problematic site like that open? – Cerberus Apr 26 '12 at 17:09
By sustainable, @Cerberus, I mean able to continue operating as a SE-style question and answer site: accepting, reviewing, editing, moderating new questions, posting ranking and reviewing answers in a timely manner, handling abuse, and last but not least, providing enough new content to keep the regulars coming back regularly so that everything else gets done. One of the big issues with SE is that it simply wasn't designed to scale down - if we want to keep low / no-traffic sites "open" in some form, we'll need tools that don't assume someone is always there. – Shog9 Apr 26 '12 at 19:19
@Shog9: Okay, most of that is clear enough, and most of it shouldn't be a problem for Linguistics. The only thing that's a bit iffy is "enough new content": how would you decide what is enough? It is probably in some way subjective; but is it enough as long as questions are asked once in a while and answered if decent, and a few people are quite active? Because I think sites about subjects that are nearly exclusively academic and that are small at universities (not many students/researchers) can never grow big, event though quality can be high. – Cerberus Apr 26 '12 at 22:06
@Cerberus: that's an excellent question, because although we do have a fixed recommendation for questions per day on Area 51, I ignored that for this purpose because as you've noted, it varies widely by topic and field. Instead, I watched for trends following the initial falloff after launch - if activity dipped and then progressively increased, that's promising; if it continued to fall, that's worrying. Ditto for activity per question (which, incidentally, is a really crucial measurement that we need to start exposing somewhere). – Shog9 Apr 27 '12 at 14:27
This ship has sailed, but in the way of constructive criticism let me say that one area SE can improve a lot is giving feedback to the community. The only information we had to gauge how we are doing was the set of competely unrealistic goals on area 51, something that discouraged many prospective users I contacted from participating in the first place. None of us, even the moderators, was contacted ahead of time to express concern and give us an opportunity to respond or adjust our site. Many of the things in this answer are reasonable, but some are demonstrably false. – Moshe May 14 '12 at 16:13
I think setting clear expectations, and giving every opportunity to adjust, would go a long way towards allowing sites like ours to succeed. Anyhow, as I said, this should be taken as an attempt to give an hopefully useful feedback. – Moshe May 14 '12 at 16:39
Thanks @Moshe. You might be interested in this answer regarding the somewhat-similar cst/cs split - the goals are unrealistic primarily because the entire system was designed for much larger sites; we're still kinda fishing around to see if it's possible - or desirable - to host smaller, more focused sites. Regardless, I agree I could've done a much better job of communicating with you ahead of time - thanks for being patient and helpful in spite of that. – Shog9 May 14 '12 at 16:47

I think part of the reason it didn't succeed has to do with the depth versus the breadth of the field. Two of the most successful sites are MathOverflow and Stack Overflow. Math and programming are both broad fields.

If someone in the field has a question about mathematics or programming, it is reasonably likely that somebody else in the field can answer it with relatively little effort, as long as the question isn't in the first person's area of specialization.

Theoretical physics (at least the part of it that had representatives participating on the site) is very deep, but not particularly broad, and so for a typical question, it might be that nobody knows the answer, or it might take a long time to figure out the answer. You certainly get questions like this in math and programming as well, but they're quite a bit less common.

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A good point. I would also add that in maths and programming much more things can be used as black-boxes (also in other subfields), with well-specified inputs and outputs. – Piotr Migdal Apr 27 '12 at 8:58

I disagree with the premise that the TP site has failed. We have succeeded in maintaining high quality site which has become a reliable resource of correct and useful information, which is sometimes not that easy to obtain. We had top people coming to the site and contributing high quality content. Quality, rather than quantity, is of course something that is not easily measurable, but I think it has value nonetheless. Traffic was an issue, but for a highly technical site the pattern of traffic, including how it changes with time, should be evaluated differently. Certainly things could have been done better (e.g. Encouraging more explicitly student questions, as long as they don't have standard textbook answers), maybe if this experiment continues elsewhere sometime...

I have to say that it is a bit disheartening to discover here, as rationale for closing the site, a lot of the preconceived notions that people had all along (e.g. That it has large everlap with the physics site, which is demonstrably false). I guess it is not that easy to change people's opinions.

My personal conclusion is that an isolated, highly technical community like ours needs to maintain their own infrastructure. SE network is great in general, but the large body of rules and opinions on about how things should be done was sometimes less than completely helpful. Maybe they are simply not set up for maintaining highly specialized sites. Perhaps an independent site, like math overflow is the way to go.

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aiqus.com/questions/34067/… There are Q&A open-source mathjax alternatives. Maybe worth a try and allowing a slower but constant growth. This way you could also integrate a WIKI, Blog, Discussion board apart from the Q&A section. Would be good if someone sets up a theophysics twitter/RSS account so we can follow the progress. – Werner Schmitt May 3 '12 at 20:43
Thanks. Please look at the discussion here meta.theoreticalphysics.stackexchange.com/questions/252/… – Moshe May 3 '12 at 20:45
Plans for moving the site can continue, after the site is closed, here chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/1350/theoretical-physics – Moshe May 4 '12 at 4:46

I thought it was a bit of a strange decision to have a site based on one subfield of research level physics. Mathoverflow would not have worked nearly as well if it had just been AlgebraicGeometryOverflow (even though a lot of the initial crowd was algebraic geometers). Why not a research-level physics site that explicitly included experimental physics, condensed matter, etc. Unlike most people here I'm a big fan of the research/non-research site splits, but I'm a lumper when it comes to subjects within research sites.

On the other hand, TCS is a rather small field, and their site seems to have gone reasonably well. What I'd really like to understand is what the difference is between TCS and TP.

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There was a discussion on it; personally, I was in favour of physics-research, but I doubt if it would have changed things very much. – Piotr Migdal Apr 26 '12 at 19:15

I agree with Peter. In a sense TP is too high quality, looking at the site would cause even graduate students in physics to freak out. I stopped visiting the site a few weeks after it started because not only it was unlikely that I could answer any question I also felt that I cannot even ask any on-topic question.

SE always emphasis the presence of experts and that is definitely required, but it seems that to keep the site alive also needs people who ask questions in areas that they are not experts, so other users who are experts in those areas can answer them. A site needs people who are not experts on some on-topic area of the site, so the users can benefit from each others expertise. I think that is one of the main reasons MO works so well, math is a wide topic and there are a lot of specialized areas and experts in each of them need to ask a question in an area they are not experts on.

Too much concentration of experts in their own field doesn't keep enough interest, even from the experts, to visit the site regularly.

So where the scope line is drawn is important, it shouldn't be too low so experts become marginalized by non-experts and therefore would not want to spend time on the site. At the same time it should not be too high so questions are too hard and too few.

I think the situation can be different if the level becomes relaxed a little bit and junior grad and senior undergraduate students participate and ask questions.

Another problem was the users were not engaged enough about running the site. The meta participation was relatively low, and there wasn't enough effort to improve the things (at least doesn't appear so based on the meta posts). It seems that they are kind of OK with the site getting closed.

Finally, it would be nice if there is a mechanism that would warn the users on betas which are not getting to a satisfactory state some time before closing and engage them on why the site is not getting to a satisfactory point, and maybe another chance to try to improve things, it might save a few of them.

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MO = Math Overflow? Why is it not striken by the same problem of "too many experts"? – Cody Gray Apr 27 '12 at 5:53
@TheEstablishment In academic circles, a lot of trust is based on credibility. MO was created by a mathematician, with hosting charges paid for by a mathematician, and it spread by word of mouth to other mathematicians, and was eventually publicized at math conferences etc. as a place for research level math discussion. None of the academic SE sites can even come close to achieving that level of technical expertise and being considered the equivalent of SO for programmers, because there is no common interest in the survival of the site or the common desire for the existence of such a site – Lorem Ipsum Apr 27 '12 at 6:16
Since all these folks on MO have a common background and culture (and I don't mean internet culture), they hit off very well, just like how SO became a hit with programmers. All said and done, at the end of the day, the sad truth is that an SE site is viewed as yet another half-hearted attempt by a for-profit company who knows absolutely nothing about the culture of the sites under its network. – Lorem Ipsum Apr 27 '12 at 6:18
@yoda: So these people "in academic circles", do they not use Google either? – Cody Gray Apr 27 '12 at 6:21
@TheEstablishment Probably not in the way that would lead to good numbers for the site. The problem with these sites is that once you're past the easily Googlable undergrad/textbook stuff, it's hard to come up with the right search terms to get exactly what you want (unless you're talking of something that is distinctive). Moreover, each person tends to write/formulate the problem very differently that Googling isn't of much help. Lines of thought and reasoning cannot be easily Googled either... – Lorem Ipsum Apr 27 '12 at 6:26
My point wasn't really that Google duplicates the functionality of SE, but rather that it is "yet another half-hearted attempt by a for-profit company who knows absolutely nothing about the culture of the sites under its network". – Cody Gray Apr 27 '12 at 6:28
+1 on graduate students in physics freaking out when seeing the site - I for one did. – E.P. Apr 30 '12 at 15:57
+1. I participated a lot at first, but it was clear that most of what was being discussed was over my head. For everyone below advanced graduate students, it would be difficult to ask a question that a lot of people found nontrivial. – Logan Maingi May 1 '12 at 0:49
MO allows lower-level and broader types of questions than TP.SE. – Phira May 3 '12 at 22:24

Reading the answers here most seem to come to the conclusion that theophys.se had to fail. I'm unsure if this is case regarding that similar science proposals like cognitivesciences.se, economics.se with much less experts and similar site statistics have huge problems generating questions too. theophys.se surely had no lack of experts or too much overlap with physics.se. Kaveh and Peter Shor made important points imo. But for Physics many reasearch problems just fit better a discussion than a Q&A format. Physicsforums.com, bulletin boards are still very high-frequented sites when it comes to popular sciene physics. Many professional physicists with a PHD still discuss in old usenet forums without mathjax or any of the nice markdown features or moderation that stackexchange offers.

Contrary, many research problems can be "discussed" as Q&A&comments in Mathematics and Computer Science and as Peter Shor pointed out, its easier in mathematics/computer science to come up with a short correct answer to a tricky question than in theoretical physics or biology. Experimental sciences fit a Q&A format much worse than such topics. Questions and problems are per se more localized and of less interest to the majority. You can easily verify this by comparing site statistics of mathematics.se and physics.se. So the conclusion is, a proposal like theophy.se needs higher area51 commitment requirements (more commiters, more experts) than sites like recently started computerscience.se or biology.se. But I wouldn't say topics like theophys.se cannot work per se in a stackexchange format. You need probably more than 5000 (this is very much compared to the thecostofknowledge.com followers) researcher for a site creating around 10 questions a day and keep experts visiting this site. This is very tricky and would imply commitment phases of 3-5 years to gather 1000 commiters and guarantee enough participation (many science proposals were for 1,5 year in commitment phase!)

Regard that so far physics.se hasn't generated many research-level questions, most user of theophys.se didn't want to participate in physics.se for mentioned reasons in many threads here. It's unlikely you can force them to spend their time on physics.se. I'm sure a site like astronomy/astrophysics.se would work with higher commitment requirements, better than being integrated into the very broad physics.se now.

So I'm very glad that the SE creators realized that the area51 process has to be adapted to generate healthy proposals for topics not related to programming and programmer's hobbies (math, parenting, cooking etc. work because many programmer deal with this topics and the low area51 commitment requirements don't damage the community dynamics in first beta months) Humanties are very unlikely to create high qualiy beta sites on SE currently. Sites like mathematica.se or biology (bioinformaticians being attracted by SO) work really great.

I'm lookin forward what the new area51 2.0 will look like. The main problem is that the number of interested laymen using SE like wikipedia due to high quality and reference character are growing exponentially faster than the amount of experts on SE. So more and more area51 proposals become diluted by commiting non-experts. So either you set up the commitment requirements so a proposal starts with enough experts in private beta or you make it mandatory for a proposal to have 30-50% professionals, experts, students (number biology/chemistry.se had, cognitivessciences, philosophy, economics had around 10%). I don't see another option. Cognitvesciences.se and Economics.se have exactly this problem of very few experts trying to establish high quality by downvoting and closing too many low-quality questions yielding a laymen vs. mods situation with the effect less voting, less questions,.... site getting closed.

A last point I want to mention. Students become researchers, science is developing towards open science. Open-access and knowledge sharing platforms like SE or Quora are young and help here to build up a community of researcher used to share secrets and tips. A mistake theophys.se imho made, was excluding advanced grad students and their problems too much, most questions on SE come from students. And in 3-4 years many of them would have been researchers and being used to ask questions. I think many of the older researchers identify asking a question with ignorance and so, ask very few questions but hire young researchers for their groups that come up with new questions, ideas, methods. Kind of tragedy :) I would try to restart theophy.se again in 1-2 years. Lesson learned.

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A few very good points, thanks. I agree that splitting between physics.SE and TP.SE at the level adv. undergraduate (so starting from research-track students) would be have been much better choice. – Piotr Migdal Apr 27 '12 at 17:16
While I agree with your points, I don't think having 5000 users is the answer... the answer is to lower the ridiculous requirements that were based on programmer hobbies (a point that you also mentioned). I'd be extremely surprised if any <research area>.se site could generate 10 quality questions/day. – Lorem Ipsum Apr 27 '12 at 20:33
@yoda: MathOverflow got just over 30 non-closed questions in the last 24 hours. It may be that math is unusually well suited for SE-style sites (see Peter Shor's answer), but there's nothing inherently contradictory about a research level site with a high question rate. – Noah Snyder Apr 28 '12 at 5:13
@yoda stackexchange.com/sites#science-traffic compare physics, math, theophys.se. The traffic was shrinking. IMHO 5 Q's/day is really a reasonable minimum for probably any online community to stay frequented and keep moderation alive. I don't think SE will lower the traffic requirements, but you can use a SE open-source software clone like Mathoverflow if you think this would work. Asking the SE creators for lowering requ. for expert proposals might be a good idea, but I think I know the answer already – Werner Schmitt Apr 28 '12 at 12:39
@NoahSnyder math.se and mathoverflow both create 10 times as much Q's/day than physics.se and theophys.se. So there is probably a difference in the nature and amount of questions (discussion-like, easy to formulate/answer). So in physics you need more user for a healthy Q&A community IMO – Werner Schmitt Apr 28 '12 at 12:53
@WernerSchmitt Most people get demoralized by the giant numbers on Area 51 that tell them that they're failing. In reality, growth in traffic is the main thing that SE cares about... they've graduated sites with 4 Q/day (e.g., bicycles). I've been telling them to abolish those numbers from that page, but to no effect. – Lorem Ipsum Apr 28 '12 at 15:22

It looked rather like a success to me.

Many of the experts in this area which are active on the internet were visiting and participating here. Do the non-physicist moderators realize this??

If you simply go by the numbers, yes, then Theoretical Physics had no chance from the start because there simply aren't enough knowledgeable people on this planet to generate a lot of traffic.

If more traffic, questions and answers are required then it would have been better to lower the level to graduate physics instead of postdoc research questions.

Merging it with Physics means messing up 13 year old high-school student questions with postdoc research, what a mess.... Still better as throwing it all away i guess.

OK, there's tag filtering and a "theoretical physics" tag would help to find the questions back. Still, one of the nice aspect of autonomous moderation by trusted users gets lost because after answering enough 13 year old high school student questions one is supposed to be knowledgeable on research level physics...

O well, just hoping that this can be saved in one way or the other.

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Look at Stack Overflow. There's everything from questions about complex enterprise systems to basic hello-world to obscure languages to even homework, all under one successful site. I don't think that it's unreasonable to have doctoral research and high school homework on the same physics site. To say must be separated is elitist. – nhinkle Apr 26 '12 at 5:37
@nhinkle SO is here not the best to compare with, as the specificity of questions (esp. verifiability of their answers) is very different. A layman programmer won't ask that easily vague things being a result of one's common sense thoughts, overzealous popularizers or "hey, just before falling asleep I figured out how the universe works". – Piotr Migdal Apr 26 '12 at 10:15
I agree that it is elitist and unnecessary to separate laypeople from professionals, as the two levels are self-segregating. But the reputation issue is actually important. If you spend a huge chunk of your brain figuring out the answer to a hard hard problem, you don't feel comfortable having the same +10 as somebody who is regurgitating undergrad physics from a book. So you want the rep to mean something. If reputation were tagged, so that questions with the "expert" tag acquired rep differently, it would be better, but its not. So rep is meaningless. – Ron Maimon Apr 26 '12 at 14:30
If a user gets enough rep from homework questions (and trust me, easy/homework questions make up a small portion of the site), then I think we can trust him/her to not meddle with research level stuff via modtools. – Manishearth Apr 26 '12 at 17:08
@ron come on, are you really worried about someone less competent than you having more points than you? ;) – Larry Harson Apr 26 '12 at 20:19
One of the great early assets of MathOverflow is that it attracted a lot of highly knowledgeable internet lurkers in addition to most highly knowledgeable users who already were active elsewhere on the internet... – François G. Dorais Apr 26 '12 at 21:18
Let me remind people who are objecting to a separate research level site that people started by using Physics but it simply didn't work and not only didn't attract top physics it cause those who were using it to stop and all this was before TP's idea came up. You cannot just say why it would not work because they tried it and it did not work. If you want to know more please check the discussions on Physics Meta about TP. – Kaveh Apr 27 '12 at 5:03
@TheEstablishment, you are free to think as you wish. I think you are very ignorant person who expresses opinions on matters he does not understand and is not knowledgeable about and would probably say the same thing about Knuth not using email anymore. It completely normal for a scientist to want to avoid interacting with persons with attitudes like yours. – Kaveh Apr 28 '12 at 21:59
@Kaveh: I don't really use email anymore, either. But it has nothing to do with elitism. Also, I'm a "scientist" to the extent that word has a definition—don't presume to know my educational background. I don't go around dropping it in conversation precisely because I'm not an elitist prick (or at least I try not to be). I'm not sure what you think I don't understand. It might be "normal" for certain groups of scientists to have elitist attitudes, but it's certainly not healthy for the field, the discipline, or the individual. True ignorance is when you are unwilling to learn. – Cody Gray Apr 29 '12 at 8:33
@TheEstablishment, I am pretty sure you don't have much academic/industrial research experience. I think you are ignorant partly because these kind of claims about elitism are already addressed elsewhere in the discussions, e.g. on Physics Meta and I am rather sure you haven't had any look at them. You are not asking anything and you don't want to understand but just want to repeat your own opinions and arguing with an opinionated ignorant person is one of the worst ways of wasting time. – Kaveh Apr 29 '12 at 14:42
As I explained elsewhere time is one of the most valuable resources of a researcher and generally researchers want to spend as much time as they can on their research, they don't like time sinks (see e.g. this). For an academician there is a clear distinction between teaching and research, many of us may like to contribute some of our time to teaching and answering non-research level questions, other researchers may not want that and that is completely normal. It has nothing to do with elitism (in the bad sense you mean). – Kaveh Apr 29 '12 at 14:45
@kaveh Wow, the egotism just doesn't stop. I've already cautioned you against making assumptions, but you continue to do so without so much as a second thought (or worse, perhaps with a second thought). How in the world do you know what my academic research experience is? And on what basis do you assume that I haven't read those Physics Meta discussions? I most certainly have, and have even discussed them with others. Yes, dismissing me as "ignorant" is convenient, but it also simultaneously validates my opinions...which is, I must say, rather inconvenient for you. – Cody Gray Apr 30 '12 at 10:35
Moreover, though I thought it went without saying, bad questions are bad questions and they need to be closed, regardless of the target audience for the site. If a question is poorly written, not constructive, shows no evidence of research effort, or is not answerable, then it needs to be closed. And yes, of course academics who choose to eschew teaching in favor of research do so because of elitism. It's a serious defect, albeit one that is pervasive throughout academia. If no one is teaching undergrads, there'll be no one worth having as grad students or post-docs. – Cody Gray Apr 30 '12 at 10:37
@Establishment, OK, would you please tell us about your academic research experience? If you have read those discussions and still act this way and call people "jerks", "pricks", ... because they have a different opinion from yours then IMHO you are an ignorant person. – Kaveh Apr 30 '12 at 14:01
Btw, who are you to say that it is incompatible with SE's philosophy? Maybe it is just with yours?! Maybe you should find somewhere else to show your arrogance? As I said, whether you like it or not, there is nothing wrong to allocate separate times to research and teaching, nor about not wanting to spend time on teaching like activities. This is the normal way things work in academia, it has nothing to do with elitist. It is clear your problem is with how academic institutions work in general, you are free to think as you like, but that is just your opinion. – Kaveh Apr 30 '12 at 14:12

It did not fail. It just did not receive the amount of traffic that Stack Exchange expects a "successful" site to have at the end of it's beta phase.

But I agree that the scope was really too niche.

• It only accepted Theoretical Physics; Experimental Physics, and to a degree even Phenomenology were off-topic. This is already too niche, and I don't even understand the reason for making experimental or phenomenology off-topic in the first place.
• The bar was really too high. It just accepted "research-level" Q&A, which meant that it only accepted posts on cutting-edge physics research. To get an idea of how niche that is, that means that even things that are of "twenty years ago" become off-topic. One can't ask a standard textbook question on T-duality in string theory, or something like that, reducing the audience significantly.

If the scope was broadened to also include experimental physics, etc., and if the bar was lowered a bit, it would really be very successful.

For example, the site has been restarted outside the SE network, with exactly this broadened scope and lower level as a new site, and the difference in statistics is already clear. Despite being outside the SE network, it already receives 150% as much traffic, and about 8 times as many questions per day as Theoretical Physics Stack Exchange.

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It's important to compare apples to apples. Theoretical Physics started out slow (3-4 questions per day on average), but then got a lot slower. Most sites have a drop-off after the initial excitement, but TPhy never sprung back from that. PhyOverflow did the right thing by broadening their scope, but even with this they're not seeing very much activity for a brand-new site. This is a problem we observed repeatedly when importing existing sites: it's easy to copy in a bunch of posts, but much harder to bring in people. It can be made to work, but there will be growing pains to deal with. – Shog9 Apr 27 '14 at 18:57
@KyleKanos No it does not - only the questions get imported, not the views. Do you even know how traffic monitoring services count views? – Dimensio1n0 Dec 19 '14 at 4:46
@KyleKanos No, the statistic was true at the time of posting this answer - there were 5.6 questions posted on-site daily. Of course, the statistic is down to about 1.5, which is still more than twice of that of TP.SE (and also more than the number of graduate-level questions P.SE gets). – Dimensio1n0 Dec 19 '14 at 14:54
@KyleKanos the broad application of the "homework-like" issue has in particuler driven away good graduate-level technical (meaning involving LaTex) questions. As several people noted recently in chat, such spezialised questions about advanced topics has never been what Physics SE wanted, as only a small group of people can understand them. Popular and everyday-life questions conversely can be understood by a very broad general (external googling) audience, so this is what an SE site with the topic of physics really is for, "shrug". – Dilaton Dec 19 '14 at 16:04
@KyleKanos it illustrates Dimension10 s point that there are not many good graduate-level (technical) questions to be found on P.SE these days and why this can naturally be expected from the preferences of the current population living there. And it is ok, in a different (better) universe P.SE and PO could even peacefully complement each other, as MO and Math SE do. – Dilaton Dec 19 '14 at 16:51
@KyleKanos No, that's not true. Just scan the front page of PO, and you'll find a lot of questions that are not of personal interest to me (and Dilaton too, I suppose). PhysicsOverflow just happens to understand the ideas of "abiding by the constitution" and "community moderation" quite well... – Dimensio1n0 Dec 23 '14 at 13:57
@KyleKanos This is what I interpret of what you say "I misrepresent the definition of graduate-level to be whatever interests me, when talking about the statistics of PSE vs PO". Is this not right? – Dimensio1n0 Dec 23 '14 at 17:21
@KyleKanos No, all of it is accounted for importing (i.e. it does not include the imports, but only the questions posted directly on PO). – Dimensio1n0 Dec 24 '14 at 1:40

Honestly, my take is that the primary reason why you had issues with theoreticalphysics.se was that:

1. The communities on the two sites were not distinct. Almost all of the commenters, questioners, and answerers on theoreticalphysics.se also were commenters on physics.se
2. While it was manifest when a question should be migrated from theoreticalphysics to physics, and the theoreticalphysics community was not at all hesitant to do so, the migration in the other direction was rare (if it ever happened)
3. Meanwhile, the traffic on theoreticalphysics was always much lower, which, in the end...
4. Created a situation where no one would ever really want to ask a question on theoreticalphysics that they could, instead, just ask on physics. The only downside is reading a few wrong or nonsense answers that would then get voted out of existence. All of the exact same people would see my question, and if they find it interesting, answer it. The only advantage would be that my theoreticalphysics question might stay at the top of the page for a longer amount of time thanks to inactivity.

All of the need for the theoreticalphysics community can probably be addressed by judicious use of the research-level tag without introducing any of the other problems. A distinct site should have, at least at some base level, a distinct community.

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Do you have any data to support "no one would ever really want to ask a question on theoreticalphysics that they could, instead, just ask on physics"? I seriously doubt the people who were asking/answering questions on [TheoreticalPhysics.se] asked questions on Physics since [TheoreticalPhysics.se]'s launch. The data on area51 seems to support the reverse with a few exceptions. – Kaveh Apr 29 '12 at 17:28
Why, then has, the question asking rate on theoretical physics dried up so badly? There are still research-level questions on physics.se, and they generate at least as much (meaningful) activity as their counterparts on theoreticalphysics. Note this: physics.stackexchange.com/questions/23696/… and this: theoreticalphysics.stackexchange.com/questions/1036/… – Jerry Schirmer Apr 29 '12 at 17:37
posted before I meant to. Read the edit. – Jerry Schirmer Apr 29 '12 at 17:41
Even if true I don't see how this supports what you claimed and I quoted in my comment. There might be still some people asking research level questions on Physics. ps: note that the user who posted the question you linked to on Physics doesn't have even a [theoreticalphysics.se] account. – Kaveh Apr 29 '12 at 17:44

I don't think you guys understand researchers.

Researchers don't want to write stackexchange posts on research-level problems. They want to publish papers on them. Research questions are simply too hard to get advice on, on an impersonal forum over the internet. You would be lucky to get a response from the most polite-sounding, flattery filled email to a research professor. You wouldn't get a response simply because you are not his research student, and he doesn't have the time to invest in a student that is not his own, for obvious reasons (that it has likely 0 payoff, unless he gets a co-authorship somewhere down the road).

So "theoretical physics" is simply too specific a site topic to exist. theoretical-physics is a great tag name for physics.se, but not an entire site. There just isn't a critical mass of people worldwide that would be interested in such a site.

Maybe in 10,000 years when theoretical physics is a high school topic, because of advancing education or whatever, but not at the present time. The site simply demands too much from people, and theoretical physicists would rather try to publish their results in a journal than help anonymous strangers finish their work.

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You've just explained why Math Overflow and Theoretical Computer Science don't exist. Also, it's clear that you have no idea how researchers tick. – Gilles May 27 '12 at 13:36
theoretical-physics is a great tag name for physics.se--really? A meta-tag? The only reason Phy.SE is thinking of allowing it is to be as receptive to the TP community as possible. – Manishearth May 27 '12 at 14:37
@TimManishEarth tagging the relevant field really doesn't seem like a meta tag... – Ben Brocka May 27 '12 at 16:59
@ben Tell that to the community meta.physics.stackexchange.com/questions/1281/… (see dupe as well) – Manishearth May 27 '12 at 22:03
Actually, if you read the comments Piotr added from meta.tp, don't want to share credit or are afraid of their idea being stolen. That's exactly what I'm talking about. – bobobobo May 27 '12 at 22:27
@TimManishEarth to be fair, the only one saying it's a meta tag there is you :P the argument for research-level is clear and identical in reasoning to the tp tag though, which seems to be why it wasn't done – Ben Brocka May 27 '12 at 23:02
"Research questions are simply too hard to get advice on", most questions on MO seem to be questions which are answered, they might be difficult for their authors but are not difficult for those who focus on the topic of the question, and these type of questions seem more common that open problem type questions that you seem to refer. – Kaveh May 28 '12 at 4:17
@Kaveh Exactly, those questions aren't research questions. They are textbook problems. – bobobobo May 28 '12 at 4:26
@bobobobo, no, they are not, and that is the point. The MO users generally know the undergraduate textbook material. It seems to me most questions there are about not very advanced open problem type question but also not undergraduate textbook questions. They are questions that are easy for an expert in the topic but not for an expert in another topic and that seems to be the core reason why MO works so well. Researchers use each others expertise in different areas. I am working on a problem in combinatorics, I want to see if some non-basic theorem about probability is true, I ask it on MO – Kaveh May 28 '12 at 4:29
and an expert in probability theory answers it easily and continue my research, I don't need to go dig tones of probability books and papers and spend hours to find the answer for a question which is easy for a person who focuses her research in probability theory. I know undergraduate probability theory but obviously I am not following research in it, don't know more advanced theorems that are basic results for someone working in probability theory. We do the same thing all the time in off-line, MO makes finding answers to this kind of questions much better/faster/easier/comprehensive. – Kaveh May 28 '12 at 4:32
So, what I mean by "textbook problems" is the question you have described. By research-level problem, I think what is meant is math-researcher-to-math-researcher conversation discussing their current work, on this anonymous, public forum on the internet. Or a student asking a very hard math question that their supervisor can't answer. From my browsing of MO, that type of stuff does happen, but I think MO is a rarity and you'd be hard pressed to repeat that success with TP. – bobobobo May 28 '12 at 11:37

With all my respect to authors of skeptic answers, that looks too biased for me. We know that few sites were closed at the same moment, for example, the Literature.SE was closed with partial merging into SciFi (!), but in this case relation area <-> sub-area is opposite and number of potential users for Literature may be in hundred times more than for the SciFi. May be if TP could be created earlier than Physics we would discuss now an opposite problem with closing Physics and partial merging into TP ... yet, stop talking about virtual history.

Anyway, I made a primitive statistical estimation and extrapolation and despite of note about "Lies, damned lies, and statistics", possibly, TP were closed in rather inappropriate moment, when it could start to generate stable growth due to new questions instead of resolving some amount of old questions already existed before and awaited creation of the site to be asked (after all the reason to open some particular Q&A site -- is try to find answers on some questions). Just after opening a site such questions are gradually exhausted, and it may produce an illusion of negative trend and stagnation before new questions start work. A simple model used for analysis may be found here, below are only plots of some prognosis of possible future of TP if it were not be closed.

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Do you really think that Phy.SE would have been closed if it had been created after TP.SE? It had a larger audience, and was bound to be more successful. And you seem to be looking at it from an "the SE team likes closing sites!!" POV--they don't. The site was a misguided attempt to segregate the audience of an already-established site. That wasn't going to work anyway. – Manishearth May 27 '12 at 10:47
@TimManishEarth, may be my English poor, but please read with more attention – Alex 'qubeat' May 27 '12 at 10:51
How do we know when we've waited long enough for new questions to start to pop into people's heads? How do we know when the site has been left open long enough to disprove your predictions? – Cody Gray May 27 '12 at 10:55
@TheEstablishment, I'm not talking about sites management - I simply have a doubt about idea of principle impossibility TP to work as Q&A site – Alex 'qubeat' May 27 '12 at 11:01
You can fit plenty of models to that small amount of data. I see no evidence that supports the exponential model you choose. Do you have data from other sites that suggests that it is even marginally valid? If not, your prognosis is indeed only virtual. – Raphael May 27 '12 at 11:01
@Raphael, virtual as any extrapolation, but possible – Alex 'qubeat' May 27 '12 at 11:03
Literature.SE didn't merge into SciFi.SE, partial or otherwise. Literature.SE, being site with a topic that comprises many genres, happened to have some SF questions that—rather than be deleted when the site shut down—could be migrated to SciFi.SE. If I recall, they attempted to migrate a few questions to English.SE as well. The same thing happened with Theoretical Physics and Economics, and an attempt was made on Healthcare IT: questions that happened to be on-topic elsewhere were migrated. And man, those graphs are some wishful thinking. – user149432 May 27 '12 at 11:31
@MarkTrapp, discussion about Literature is here meta.scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/1746/… but I better to stop ... – Alex 'qubeat' May 27 '12 at 11:55
@Alex'qubeat': "Possible" is a weak term. If your post is to make sense, you have to argue why the proposed model/future is likely. You fail to do so. In fact, data of similar sites (e.g. cstheory.SE) does not support a model that assumes eventual steady growth of questions/day (let alone the exponential growth you assume!). In other words, your assumption 3. is wildly inaccurate and therefore the model is not worth a dime. – Raphael May 27 '12 at 17:42
@Alex'qubeat' I'm an active SciFi user and am fully aware of that meta question: like I said, a few questions happened to be on topic for SciFi, so rather than deleting them, they were migrated before the site shut down. That's not merging sites: SciFi's scope didn't change, general literature questions aren't on-topic there, people aren't redirected to SciFi. If you want an example of a merge that actually happened, look at Guitars.SE merging into Music.SE, which happened when the older, more specialized Guitars.SE was found to be unsustainable. But I guess that goes against your whole point. – user149432 May 27 '12 at 21:00