# Dealing with sense of scale in space

One issue I've seen come up a few times deals with a sense of scale in space. People's instincts on what can and cannot be done are often off by not just an order of magnitude, but an order of magnitude number of orders of magnitude! The same set of numbers tend to come up for describing just how big a project is, and that tends to get accepted as the answer, and we all move on.

I've heard at least one call to be able to just close these questions, but I'm not quite a fan of this. Just because the answer is "you weren't even close" doesn't make the question devoid of value (consider Lethal Neutrinos, one of the more epic order of magnitude problems I've ever seen). Besides, sometimes its just plain fun to see someone crunch the math and show just how small our measly humanity actually is! ("Give me a long enough lever and I will move the world" is really amusing if you ever try to crunch the numbers)

It does, however, make sense to do something with this class of problem. They're easy to spot. Just look for the answers using scientific notation with ridiculous exponents. If people keep coming in with these issues, is there something we can do to make the existing answers more useful, or easier to find?

Personally, I'm pondering the idea of retroactively tagging questions with a tag devoted to sense-of-scale-in-space, and in the answer pointing future question askers to look for that tag. I just don't know if that's a feasible approach or not... and I don't think my 5-word-long tag suggestion will fly.

• Ah yes, lethal neutrinos. My favorite :) Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 20:42
• Could you provide an example or two of the type of question you have in mind? I'm having trouble understanding the magnitude of this issue. ;) Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 20:50
• @Frostfyre Without the intent of pointing a finger at anyone in particular, we have for example worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/27082/29, worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/10150/29, worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/4679/29 and probably a bunch of others.
– user
Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 21:10
• I love the phrasing "an order of magnitude number of orders of magnitude". That's the easy-to-grasp way of saying $10^{10^{x}}$.
– user
Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 21:11
• tagging is a good idea or maybe someone can create a table in the worldbuilding blog to show the orders of magnitude, some answers and OP can link to it as reference. Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 3:38
• I'd say this applies to more than just space. See people's eternal frustration with the square-cube law Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 12:11

Yes. This irks me. A lot.

Hm. I think that this issue arises from a more general class of problems in questions dealing with astronomy: imagination exceeds common sense. All three of the questions Michael Kjörling mentioned are tagged . Yet the only possible science that you could put in an answer to one of those questions would be along the lines of

Science doesn't allow this.

Basically, these questions are based on the premise that things are a lot simpler than they are, which isn't true. I see this a lot on Worldbuilding - no offense, all - and I feel like it's been happening a lot more lately (which has made me less inclined to answer questions). My current method of dealing with this annoying phenomenon is to not look at the question any further. Why? Because even worse than the fact that the question is unrealistic is the fact that many (though not all) of the answers that don't go along the lines of "This isn't possible" are so far-fetched that they would be better off used in a low-budget soft sci-fi flick - and yet they still get upvotes!

I don't mean to offend people, but it's not just the questions that are the problem here. The answers contribute just as much, because they are often written from a naïve point of view. Sure, there are the answers that work with the numbers, but those are the answers that are forced to conclude with "No can do." My point is that these answers aren't helping. They're hurting, and making the site a worse resource.

End of micro-rant. So what do we do? I agree with DaaaahWhoosh's answer in that an overarching policy would be A Bad Idea™. However, I would advocate doing something, and that something would be twofold:

1. Letting the author of the question know that their idea is fairly far-fetched.
2. Waiting for any forthcoming changes.
3. If no changes come, closing the question as off-topic via a custom reason (if people like this), along the lines of

I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is based on false premises.

or something.

• I agree with a False Premise close reason. Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 13:04
• If the question is bad enough to be close-worthy without any changes, it's bad enough to be put on hold right away. We can always reopen the question if the OP changes it to be less bad.
– user
Commented Jul 31, 2016 at 13:34
• I like this solution. I think it would also be useful if we had some "community wiki" meta questions/answers addressing common mistakes of this type. (How big is space? What limitations are imposed by the square-cube law?) Then, when we close the questions, we can comment and say, "This is how big space is [link]." I think that would be more helpful to the asker than just letting them know it's far-fetched, and would reduce the burden on closers to explain in detail every single time. More than willing to write about the square-cube law if that's the direction we go. Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 17:48
• When is “that's not possible” an appropriate answer?
– user
Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 15:05

I agree that this is a problem, and perhaps one that I have run into a few times with my own questions, but I don't think there is a cut-and-dry way to solve it.

For instance, I don't think this is just a problem with space. I can think of a few evolution questions where the right answer is 'evolution doesn't work that way because X'. There are just a lot of cases where people are asking questions about things for which they are not experts, and end up getting something wrong along the way. I think this is called the XY problem, though I may be overgeneralizing.

So the big problem, the one that's causing these space magnitude errors and so many others, is that people who ask questions don't know about what they're asking. And I think if they come in not knowing they're wrong, we're already doing all we can for them by explaining how they're wrong. If someone doesn't know how big space is, but they think they do, they're not going to go looking for any questions here that might put them in the right direction. They're going to ask about what they know they don't know, while what they don't know they don't know remains hidden until someone points it out.