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We have LaTeX on Worldbuilding and Worldbuilding Meta (which doesn't seem to be the case for Physics, strangely enough). It's extremely useful in many cases, and I've been using it a lot lately. It also lends more credence to your answer - if you can calculate that the gravitational acceleration on Planet Q is about 8 m/s$^2$, you can definitively show that humans would be okay there. $$\huge \text{It's okay to use }\LaTeX{}\text{!}$$


I can't just say that, though - and I won't, because I do want to talk a little about this.

Is there any reason why we aren't seeing a lot more math in answers? I've seen perhaps 5 posts in the past week or so using a significant amount (some of which I've edited, because, once again, people aren't using LaTeX!). I'll concede that in many cases, you don't need any math, and a nicely written answer consisting of a couple of paragraphs is worthy of every single vote it gets.$^1$ And it is quite the pain to edit LaTeX - or write it in the first case, especially if you're new to it.

However, there are cases where math would be better, and it seems like there's not a lot of math being used. Is there any reason why we're not using more math here?


$^1$ Actually, I'd say this is always the case, and I'll congratulate those who can eloquently deal with a question in two or three paragraphs.

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    $\begingroup$ My guess would be learning curve, and that the site would be well-served by a short how-to guide (maybe as an answer here?). $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Dec 14 '14 at 1:40
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    $\begingroup$ @githubphagocyte Maybe a community wiki meta question would direct attention to that idea better than putting it here, where it would have a chance at being relegated to an afterthought. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Dec 14 '14 at 15:03
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    $\begingroup$ @githubphagocyte I recommend a new meta question, "how do I use LaTeX on this site?" (or something like that), with a single answer with the basic how-to, tips and tricks, etc. That'll give people one clean post to link to. If you make it community wiki then others can help edit it. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Dec 14 '14 at 20:51
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    $\begingroup$ Since that's 2 confirmations that a separate question would be best, I've posted one here with a basic community wiki answer as a starting point. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Dec 14 '14 at 21:24
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks @HDE226868 - that does seem better than risking it being buried under other answers here. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Dec 14 '14 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ @githubphagocyte I'm thinking of adding some things to the wiki answer. It's starting off well! $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Dec 14 '14 at 21:30
  • $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio good idea - it's set up now if you want to check it over. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Dec 14 '14 at 21:30
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 yes I'm hoping the answer will be much expanded by people who understand it more than me... $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Dec 14 '14 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ @githubphagocyte thanks. And that solved one mystery for me: your question asked why we don't use LaTeX and my reaction was "we have LaTeX?" -- because I didn't know that MathJax = (a flavor of?) LaTeX! :-) $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Dec 14 '14 at 22:58
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    $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio I wasn't sure the difference either, but I just found this that explains it well. In short, we have MathJax which allows some but not all of Latex. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Dec 14 '14 at 23:13
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At first, I didn't realise it was there, and had a cringing moment when I saw how terrible the math was to read. After realising it was there, though, I immediately said...

How do I use this?

And therein may be the issue: people don't know it's there, or they don't know how to use it. It is, fortunately, not difficult to learn. A powerful tool in the right hands.

One reason for there not being more math may be that it just isn't coming up, or people are not considering it necessary in answers. I, personally, would appreciate a bit of mathematical proof in an answer where appropriate (if the math wasn't over my head), no different than I would in the classroom. Anything with sufficient basis on actual physics or math (plain math in worldbuilding? hmmm...) could benefit from it, though others may disagree.

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  • $\begingroup$ I find mathurl.com is useful for finding out how to represent something in MathJax - it shows the Latex code as you build up an expression. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Dec 14 '14 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ The only extra thing you need then is knowing that the Latex code needs to be surrounded by dollar signs (or double dollar signs for a centred expression not embedded in a sentence). $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Dec 14 '14 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ I agree it would be useful to have a way of helping people find this out. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Dec 14 '14 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ Definitely a good point. I find that even on Physics, Mathematics, and other Math-heavy SEs, the link(s) to pages on using LaTeX aren't too prominent. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Dec 14 '14 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ I've started a new guide to using MathJax and Latex. $\endgroup$ – trichoplax Dec 14 '14 at 21:43
  • $\begingroup$ There's very little help on how to use latex in the editor. The markdown help center has next to no info. $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Dec 16 '14 at 9:02
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I'm not sure to what extent this actually happens, but the questions on this site can sometimes "scare off" the kinds of people who would give quantitative answers. I don't mean that they're literally scared, of course (scientists are often surprisingly comfortable with blowing up the world and so on), but they're just not able to give meaningful mathematically-justified answers.

A lot of the questions here are roughly of the form "In a situation where theory Y is false, what does theory Y predict?" It's like the scientific equivalent of "Suppose $1 = 2$, then what's the solution to $x^2 - 31x + 5 = 0$?" Once you make a nonsensical assumption, then you can reach pretty much any conclusion you want, but there's no one right answer. People with expertise in the relevant science will often pick up on that, and they won't be able to give an answer that is consistent with their knowledge of the science. No matter what answer they try to come up with, they'll see some reason it wouldn't work. That becomes especially true if they try to include a calculation.

Incidentally, on Physics SE we decided very early on to make these "fictional physics" questions off topic for precisely this reason.

Now, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with these sorts of questions. They are a lot of fun, for sure, and sometimes you can answer a question while breaking scientific laws in a consistent way. This site has a lot of passive fans in the hard sciences. But in many cases, it's just too hard to do a logical or mathematical analysis of a worldbuilding question that gives any conclusion other than "this can't happen."


And a related issue that just occurred to me: unless I have reason to believe otherwise, I would assume that many of the readers of this site don't really want to see math, or at least will not understand enough to benefit from it. This was my thought process while posting my first answer. There was a lot of math I could have included, but I didn't think it would add anything useful to the answer, and it would probably scare some people away.

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    $\begingroup$ Amen on the scary questions. I have now answered a couple of questions of the form: "What would [a major change of physics] be, if the [fundamental physics of it] were unchanged." 1=2 really is a good analogy. And I can't get anyone to understand it does not work like that. (I have explained it badly, though. Maybe next time.) I think it is because science is taught in small pieces, so people have no real idea how the pieces fit together and how changing one thing affects other parts. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Dec 14 '14 at 10:15
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Well, we can't really assume readers here understand either jargon (oops, "proper scientific nomenclature", or whatever) or mathematical notation beyond the basics. So a good useful answer is written in plain English with clear facts and reasoning. Understanding the answer should not depend on understanding the math. Or having memorized lots of names of dead mathematicians or physicists.

That said, once you have explained the answer in English, there is no harm in adding the actual formula or even an actual example of how it is used. I kind of dislike math and my understanding of the notation is weak, but there have still been many times that I have turned to reading the mathematical formula included to actually understand the written explanation. Explanations written by people who understand the topic tend to be filled with jargon and copied from a source that assumes a higher level of reader knowledge on the topic. Explanations written by, to say it politely, "non-experts" tend to have basic flaws in understanding the logic or miss important details. Having the math included is a big help in either case.

And yes, many world-building questions are so speculative applying real-world science to their details is meaningless and almost certainly gives the wrong answer.

There is also the matter of correct precision. In world-building the inputs are often so vaguely defined that doing calculations naively results in the GIGO effect. You can't give a better than vague answer with vague inputs, and while math can be used with vague input values, a verbal explanation is much more likely to be understood.

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