I thought of this whilst reading Mithrandir's answer to this question*. I have seen a few like this and understand the temptation by those who know more to express this. However if the question has been asked without a hard science tag should an answer still be written as a hard-science one?

I completely understand the desire for citations and equations, I have a physics background and to me an equation can clear up what several paragraphs could not. However if we're bearing in mind our target reader is the asker of this question should the answers not be aimed at their level?

*I don't mean to criticise the answer, just use it as an example of what I mean - I have seen it plenty of other times.

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    $\begingroup$ Any answer is going to be as incomprehensible as the question. When you start with "quantized rest mass," expect this result. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 5:40
  • $\begingroup$ @SRM Quantized rest mass is real enough. All protons and electrons have the same masses. This goes on through the rest of the particle zoo. A more amusing cosmology would be one with particles having any arbitrary mass, i.e., protons & electrons, for starters, with non-identical masses. Quantized rest mass isn't an easy concept. Yes the original question wasn't easy or simple, but it got some really good answers. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 8:30
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    $\begingroup$ @a4android I know it is real. My point is that it is a very technical term, so asking questions about it demands a very technical answer. It's the equivalent of saying, "How would corporate accounting change if Congress modified paragraph 3 subsection C of the US tax code to exclude bananas?" Any highly-specialized question in any field is going to encourage a highly-specialized answer. Lio seems to be suggesting that a highly-specialized answer is a negative, but I think it is exactly what the OP wanted. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 14:51
  • $\begingroup$ @SRM My problem is the expression, yes you need to be specialized to know how this would effect things but if something isn't tagged hard-science it probably doesn't want a hard-science tag. Especially considering the question I indicated where the user had been part of WB for several months by that time and probably had seen a hard-science tag before. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 15:33
  • $\begingroup$ @SRM The point about the question being too technical is good. I heartily agree. The answer was appropriate to the question. Anything else would be too vague and inconclusive. So there's a problem with bananas? I'm glad I don't have to worry about US tax law. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 23:52
  • $\begingroup$ @LioElbammalf Reasonably frequently science-based questions will get what are effectively hard-science answers. This is good. The OP asked a question that required a highly technical answer and unavoidably so. The OP has asked many other highly technical questions. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 23:57
  • $\begingroup$ In the case, it is a lucky coincidence expert in the particular field have answered the question. You complaining about a miracle, it happens rarely, like supernovae blasts in near locations around us. And opting to provide different style answers - that soft part of the content will be filled easily. It is a good part of the system - multiple variations/answers to one question. Answer of the guy is perfect by content and the structure. Meaningful part for OP is between 'Answer' and 'Explanation', the rest is for other guys :D $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 10:51

3 Answers 3


In general

It's . . . a judgement call - and that's coming from someone who probably makes some poor judgement calls in this area from time to time.

If you're going to write an answer that you think is pretty in-depth and goes above and beyond the call of duty, ask yourself this:

  • Is it necessary to go the extra mile? Will I be raising readers to a new plane of enlightenment and understanding? Will I just be showing off? There's a difference, and sometimes you risk people not reading the answer because there's a lot of unnecessary fluff.
  • Will the OP and other readers understand what I'm writing? I'm sometimes guilty of not asking myself this, which probably means that some folks just gloss over some of my answers. And that's fine. But you need to make sure that the people who would ask this question - the OP and future would-be askers - actually understand your answer. Otherwise, it might as well be written in Linear A.
  • Did I explain everything properly? It's okay to add some jargon if jargon has a place there, but you need to explain things, at least the first time around.

This case

I consider myself somewhat educated in physics, though not to a great extent in this particular area. In other words, I know the math behond some Lagrangians, Noether's theorem, and how you can find solutions to various forms of the Schrödinger equation, all of which play a role in the answer. But then I get to this section:

$\mathcal{L}_{Yukawa}$ is, of itself, still quite long, containing terms such as $$\sum_{f' = l_R, f = l_L}H_{f'f}\bar{f'}\left(f \circ \phi \right) $$ Here, $H$ is a 3×3 matrix, $\bar{f'}$ are anti-right-handed leptons (aka. positrons), $f$ are left-handed leptons (electrons and neutrinos) and $\phi$ is ... The Higg's field. Or, the only way that elementary particles can have mass is from the Higgs boson. This includes, to my knowledge, neutrinos.

. . . It gets a bit blurry there. I know all the words, but we've got more than words here. We've got math. And I have only a very faint idea of what that summation means.

I think this part violates Bullet 1 (I don't really need to know what the Yukawa term is mathematically, unless the point is to emphasize how complicated it is, in which case, mission accomplished!), Bullet 2 (for most people, I'd reckon), and Bullet 3 (yes, the symbols were explained, but not as mathematical objects, which makes the expression itself useless).

That said, I think that the above is the one place in the answer where the writer maybe went overboard. Breaking down the Standard Model Lagrangian is a nice touch to make sure we all know the background, and the end reminds me that I'm always a sucker for time evolution and quantum states (plus, that section makes a good mathematical point).

So, yes, there are cases where it's probably best to limit oneself in an answer for the pure sake of readability. You do have to know who your audience is at the present and likely will be in the future. You also have to make it clear what your mathematics means, because inconsistency in notation is no small problem. Finally, let's make sure that we only write what we need to write in an answer - and yes, I could take that advice once in a while.

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    $\begingroup$ In this case, apart from making a slight point about why I'm not writing down the whole thing in maths, it's to show that you're multiplying by $\phi$, which is the Higgs field - if you think it improves the answer, I could just replace it with saying that Yukawa coupling gives the allowed possible interactions of fermions with the Higgs boson, so can also be ignored by point 2. When writing it down, my thought process was along the lines of "the term is 'abcd' where 'd' is the Higgs field". Please tell me if It's coming out as showing off. I really don't want to do that $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 0:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Mithrandir24601 I think that would be a lot simpler, yes, in part because even knowing what the symbols stand for, it's still not clear how they interact with one another. For instance, are $\bar{f'}$ and $f$ scalars, vectors, spinors, or something else? That leads to ambiguity in even what 'multiplication' means here. If you want to leave it, that's fine; even just adding the sentence you wrote in this comment would be an improvement. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868 Mod
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 1:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Mithrandir24601 I don't think it's showing off. I prefer hard-science answers to science-based questions. To me that's going the extra mile. I have a broad science background which means I'm often coming up against areas in science where I have gaps in my knowledge and things get fuzzy. If the OP or other WBers want further clarity they can always ask. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 8:35

I think that doing more than you need to do cannot hurt. To cite from the hard-science tag:

However, do not remove hard-science from a question that has the tag and science-based. Instead remove science-based, because hard-science holds answers to an even higher standard.

In my opinion a higher standard is nothing bad and as long as there is a clear explanation for people who are not as familiar with the hard-science theoretical subject at hand and it really answers the question a hard-science answer is a perfectly valid answer.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm not arguing that they aren't valid answers in general, however to the asker the answer may not always be so clear - if they have no background in a related subject sometimes equations can be a barrier. Perhaps they didn't ask for hard-science for the very reason that they find it difficult to read easily. What may be a clear answer to one person might make another turn off as soon as an equation pops up. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 23:43
  • $\begingroup$ @LioElbammalf You are right that some people might skip answers that involve equations. But some might as well only be looking for them. SE is about providing answers to questions. As long as the answer is valid everything is fine. Someone posting a hard-science answer should just be aware that there are probably more people who don't like equations reading here than there are people who like it. And not everyone will post hard-science answers. Such an answer is just an additional goodie. As I said: as long as there is some concise summary/explanation there should be no problem. $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 23:47

It is always nice to provide details

Math, papers, specific scientific references are always OK. They are not always needed, but are always something nice to have.

Problem is not in hard content, but in lack of soft one

I mean, really, most of the times answer should contain a section that's easy to understand for someone with high-school level of education. Sometimes in this might be omitted, but as a rule of thumb, it should be present wherever feasible.


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