It's been an exciting first (partial) week. We've got 105 questions (and counting) with a number of interesting and useful answers. However, I'm concerned that too many of your questions do not, um, play to the strengths of the Stack Exchange network. In particular, more than a few questions so far are probably best answered with an article from some other site on the internet (notably Wikipedia).

Here are a sampling of questions (from different askers) that demonstrate the problem:

How do stellar temperatures vary?

What causes a star to become a pulsar?

Why is only one side of the Moon visible from Earth?

What is the naming convention for newly discovered objects?

What is the accepted theory as to why Uranus' axis is tilted so severely?

Does the Sun belong to a constellation?

One of the things we do to evaluate the health of a site is to grab a sample of questions 10 answered questions from the quarter and ask users to review them. (For an idea of what I mean check out the most recent Academia site eval.) In particular, we are looking to see if our answers are better than what can be found elsewhere on the internet and if they are easy to find via a search engine. Since we are in private beta, Google won't find our answers yet. So I invite you to search for the answers to these questions and consider if the answers we have so far would make you happier than what you find on other sites.

My former colleagues at JPL and NASA are doing some amazing work to educate the public about astronomy. It would make me very sad (and apologetic) if folks can't find that information because this site beats them at SEO. And I'd be doubly put out if our answers were shallow, uninformative and boring. Please ask deeper and more-specific questions. And when you see commonly-asked questions, either write strong answers that improve on easily discovered sources or vote to close (as "too broad", most likely). When we are ready to make the site public, let's make ourselves presentable.

On a related note, I've closed two questions that are more about astronomy as a career field than astronomy itself:

I'd like to become an astronomer. What experience do I need?

What is the current routine of modern astronomy?

I have mixed feelings about this since there is some merit to having these questions on the site. It's not unnatural that people interested in scientific research would also be interested the scientists who do it. If there were just one such question and if the rest of the site was filled with more meaty questions, I probably wouldn't mention it.

The problem with these questions is that they are really the sort of thing you should ask a career counselor or in chat.

Finally: I've got my eye on you, tag.


Ask more interesting questions this week than you did last week!

  • $\begingroup$ Is the [black-hole] tag generating a lot of really basic questions? $\endgroup$ – Undo Sep 28 '13 at 0:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Undo: In my experience, people are fascinated with black holes because: 1) they are very strange, 2) they sound a little frightening, and 3) they are ripe for science-fictiony speculation. Some of the current black hole questions seem to be focused more on #3 than I'm comfortable with. $\endgroup$ – Jon Ericson Sep 28 '13 at 0:44
  • $\begingroup$ OK, I'll watch the tag too. Thanks for the advice! $\endgroup$ – Undo Sep 28 '13 at 0:46
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    $\begingroup$ A lot of concepts explanation without LaTeX would be too much meat for the day. Get us MathJax and we'll give you a bloodbath! $\endgroup$ – Cheeku Sep 28 '13 at 1:48
  • $\begingroup$ Okay, I thought I/we were doing better than that... I am going to be replying mostly anyways. $\endgroup$ – user8 Sep 28 '13 at 2:54
  • $\begingroup$ But...but... black-hole is my tag :p On a more serious note: I was thinking of posting something similar. There's another issue I see in this site's growth (it reminds me of Arduino in a way), which I may post about later. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Sep 28 '13 at 6:46
  • $\begingroup$ Ah yes, my 'shame' question - still there $\endgroup$ – user8 Oct 19 '13 at 11:21

Here's also a concern of mine: For SE sites that have more to do with programming (namely StackOverflow), there is a great deal of traffic involving specific implementations of code. I mean, there are literally dozens of questions involving how to use regular expressions on StackOverflow. Yet, you could simply pick up any book on regular expressions to get the same information.

When it comes to sites like Astronomy.SE or Physics.SE, unless we have researchers involved asking questions at the forefront of our current understanding, these sites rely on non-professionals asking questions that can be found with minimal time spent looking on Wikipedia or googling. At least once the site gets going and more professionals join, these are probably the vast majority of questions that we will get. There are something like 10,000 professional astronomers world-wide. I'm not convinved that that's a large enough population to draw from to get this site off the ground.

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    $\begingroup$ We don't need a site full of professional astronomers. We need a site full of people who are good at answering astronomy questions. Astronomy is eternally fascinating to millions of people. Much of the research in astronomy is public, but not easily digestible. So there's a huge opportunity for people who are able to understand scientific research to answer detailed questions from those who are merely curious. $\endgroup$ – Jon Ericson Sep 28 '13 at 21:12
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    $\begingroup$ @JonEricson so if professionals being here is not important, is this astronomy site intended to be rather popular than professional in nature? I think a fair number of professional astronomers should be here for the content of the site to be correct and reliable. Just people asking curious questions and others simply browsing the internet to answer without studying astronomy themself is probably not enough to guarantee good quality. I have already seen some confused answers (about dark matter questions for example) which get upvoted anyway ... $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Sep 28 '13 at 22:18
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    $\begingroup$ You're aware that the definition of "professional" is "paid to engage in an activity" and not the antonym of "ignorant", right @Dilaton? $\endgroup$ – Shog9 Sep 29 '13 at 1:40
  • $\begingroup$ I do agree that we need a fair amount of non-professionals for a healthy SE site to persist - and it is true that non-professionals can answer detailed questions very accurately (sometimes they may do it better, since some astronomers are terrible at writing). The only concern of mine, and this may turn out to be premature, that there are more half-cooked, half-researched answers than properly answered ones. However, I do understand that there are upvotes/downvotes, edits, comments, and the like, so again, this may not really turn out to be a problem worth worrying about. Just thinking. $\endgroup$ – astromax Sep 29 '13 at 12:42
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    $\begingroup$ I just don't want this to be a place where professionals come and look around and say, "I'm outta here". We want to attract them, too, since they're the ones who can throw their specialty into the mix. $\endgroup$ – astromax Sep 29 '13 at 12:44
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    $\begingroup$ I would say then, that it's important to focus on questions from folks who are "doing" astronomy, @astromax. Whether that's at a beginner/enthusiast level, or, as you suggest, the cutting edge. Such questions allow for experience and expertise to be brought to bear on a problem rather than simply rewarding Wikipedia quotes. $\endgroup$ – Shog9 Sep 29 '13 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ So in other words, I should focus on asking and answering questions which are at my level of expertise? $\endgroup$ – astromax Sep 29 '13 at 14:28

Point taken - but may I make a suggestion, to not delete the questions of concern (i.e. your sampling of problem questions) - the reason I suggest this is because there are considerable research going on with many of these topics, that once a breakthrough occurs can be places where that information is included.

Just an example of what I mean - as my Uranus question is of concern - the reason I asked is because there are a couple of theories as to why it's rotational axis is so heavily tilted and I know of a couple of people doing research on that (and are trying to get them to join).

  • $\begingroup$ You might as well know that the Uranus question caught my eye because of the current answer. Then I looked at Google and found lots of material that probably ought to have been mentioned in the question. The question can be improved by listing several theories or, better yet, focusing on just one theory. Better questions tend to be more detailed. $\endgroup$ – Jon Ericson Sep 28 '13 at 21:16
  • $\begingroup$ @JonEricson I have fixed, or rather - attempted to fix the question. $\endgroup$ – user8 Sep 28 '13 at 21:25

As a young 'professional' astrophysicist, I have attempted to answer a selection of questions that can be related to my research or previous experience. Given that there are so few astrophysicists working in each specific research area, it may be hard to find people that can provide much more insight than someone who is generally interested in the area, but not a practicing researcher. Also, given that research publication is moving to a more open model, I think that the lines are blurring between professional journals (e.g., ApJ) and the likes of wikipedia articles (many of which are written my specialists). So, the niche questions that are not answered by general interest sites may be few- or at least hard to identify.

That said, can someone identify for us users, which questions asked so far on Astronomy Beta are best suited to the site? At least for me, this is not terribly clear.


We should allow some basic questions, but we should make sure the answers are top quality, providing clear information, sourced from more places than just Wikipedia.

But you are correct we should also be pushing for bigger, meatier questions, but that doesn't mean we have to have less basic questions too.

Why not both?

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    $\begingroup$ That's a good point. However, the current ratio is way too skewed toward questions that are already well answered elsewhere. The main page looks too much like it was populated by students in their first week of an Astronomy course after the instructor asks them what they'd like to learn in the semester. I'd rather see questions that might be answered in a scientific paper or asked by students at the end of a semester (or more!) of astronomy. I'd like to see fewer questions that are answered by articles in popular media and more that dig deeper into the science behind such articles. $\endgroup$ – Jon Ericson Sep 29 '13 at 5:43

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