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The question How much power does the Martian heat ray output? was closed by me (as moderator) as being a "science-based question". Per my original comment at the time;

The wording could be clearer. It allows science questions where the driver is the fiction. In this case you're basically asking "what output would a heat ray need to melt metal" with the fictional basis being largely irrelevant

It's even one of the exemplars given for a question that's off-topic on the highest upvoted answer about what sort of questions not to allow

What is our actual policy on science questions?


Why has it been reopened? Has the policy been changed to allow real-world science questions?

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    Can't speak for the other three reopen-voters, but I cast the final reopen vote on this question because I read it as asking how much power a particular device used to perform a particular feat, in-universe. That seems to me to fall squarely under - quoting the policy - a "question that is asking for an answer within the context of a fictional universe, even if that question requires real-world science information". – Rand al'Thor Feb 15 '17 at 23:58
  • I just edited "would" to "did" in the question, which I think preserves the original intent of the question exactly while making it more clearly on-topic. – Rand al'Thor Feb 16 '17 at 0:00
  • @Randal'Thor - As I said in my comment, he's not looking for an in-universe description of the power-source, he wants someone to work out what power output a fictional device would need in order to achieve the out-of-universe effect described. That would be better suited for another stack "What power output does my heat ray need to melt metal" – Valorum Feb 16 '17 at 0:00
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    Just out of curiosity, should I not have written this answer? Now I'm super confused about what is and isn't on-topic. – Kevin Feb 16 '17 at 3:37
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    I cast a VTRO, happens to be for the same reasons as Rand. Also, I'm not that in-tune with the whole science policy as I should be, so I'm happy to be corrected. – Möoz Feb 16 '17 at 4:52
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    @kevin That question wasn't asking for the scientific answer you gave, so it's not off topic. The nature of the question was open ended, and other answers even suggest there were story explanations. If the question had been "How much time dilation should the crew have experienced..." it might have been be off topic (hard to say. Sometimes that stuff is actually right in the source material) – user31178 Feb 16 '17 at 6:25
  • [1/2] The thing with this question is that it is perfectly answerable. Given we have real-world equations for heat transfer and capacity (high-school level), and with some amount of guessing speculation, we can calculate the heat output. It's essentially the same as this question, which has been closed as science-based and then reopened by Thaddeus. – Gallifreyan Feb 16 '17 at 15:40
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    [2/2] Or this question answered by you. All three have a fair bit of speculation in them, and all are answerable without getting too opinion-based. – Gallifreyan Feb 16 '17 at 15:42
  • @Gallifreyan - Except that the novel makes it abundantly clear that it's not an infra-red beam. It has some kind of blinding visible component to it which makes it nonsense-physics. – Valorum Feb 16 '17 at 15:46
  • @Valorum - and quadranium is not a real metal, but this didn't stop you and me from posting answer on respective questions. If we rephrase the question this post is about as "How much energy would it take to melt X in the work Y?" this would make it within the context of a fictional universe. – Gallifreyan Feb 16 '17 at 16:26
  • @Gallifreyan - Imagine you remove the words "in the War of the Worlds" from the question. If it still makes sense, then it's not on-topic. – Valorum Feb 16 '17 at 16:29
  • @Valorum - doesn't the same apply to the Death Star questions? – Gallifreyan Feb 16 '17 at 18:15
  • @Gallifreyan - Which Death Star questions (in particular) are you referring to? – Valorum Feb 16 '17 at 18:16
  • The one about atmosphere (that you answered) and the one about satellites, that I answered. – Gallifreyan Feb 16 '17 at 18:17
  • @Gallifreyan - Arguably. If the OP already knew the in-universe composition of the Death Star and wanted to know "can a body that has a mass of x sustain an atmosphere?" then it would be off-topic since the Star Wars content would essentially be zero. – Valorum Feb 16 '17 at 18:19
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The linked question should remain closed now that it has been re-closed.


Frankly, I don't like our policy very much. It seems to sneakily contradict itself, leaving us confused and talking in circles:

Any question that is asking for an answer within the context of a fictional universe, even if that question requires real-world science information, is on-topic.
[...]
Questions which are explicitly asking for an out-of-universe explanation of the science from a work of science fiction or fantasy should be off-topic.

The terms "in-universe" and "out-of-universe" are not meaningful when the specific aspect of the universe in question is identical to reality. Either we need to come up with a more specific definition, or we need to throw this out and come up with something else.

The problem with the linked question is that knowing about the story cannot help one to answer the question. The question is not about The War of the Worlds, it is a physics-homework-esque word problem that happens to dress itself in the trappings of The War of the Worlds. That should be our criterion: Whether an answer will (or plausibly could) require using knowledge specific to the fictional work. You can rephrase that in terms of "in-universe" and "out-of-universe" if you like, and even make the argument that this is just a clarification of our existing policy. Personally, I think my phrasing is clearer, but this is ultimately a matter of opinion.

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  • The accepted definition is very highly upvoted. "use only scientific information that is either explained, demonstrated, or at least not-contradicted by what can be seen within the work" - That basically means where the question is largely independent of the work in question, it's off-topic. – Valorum Feb 16 '17 at 11:27
  • @Valorum: The specific heat, heat of fusion, and melting point of steel are all easily "not-contradicted by what can be seen within the work." You are arguing against yourself. – Kevin Feb 16 '17 at 20:39
  • Since the beam defies current science, how are we supposed to know how it works or what energy is being inputted? If you want to know "how much energy does it take to melt steel", that's great, but take it to Physics:SE. – Valorum Feb 16 '17 at 20:50
  • The explanation given for this specific example, in the existing policy, is: Appears to be asking how a fictional device would operate in the real world. Which I don't think is unclear, but it could be hoisted up further in our criteria to stand out. – user31178 Feb 16 '17 at 23:31
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I can't speak for the other reopen-voters, but here's why I felt confident enough to cast the fourth and final VTRO.

The question seems to be asking how much power a particular device used to perform a particular feat, in-universe. We might need to use some real-world physics in order to compute the answer, but it's not a "was this feasible?" type question. It seems on par with e.g. Which is bigger - the Star Forge, or the Death Star? or How strong would Clark have to be to lift the school bus out of the water? - it's asking for a realistic physical analysis of a fictional object.

Quoting from the standing policy on science questions:

In-Universe Explanations -- Even Based On Real Science -- Are On-Topic

Any question that is asking for an answer within the context of a fictional universe, even if that question requires real-world science information, is on-topic.

In order to make the question (hopefully) more clearly on-topic, I edited "would" to "did" in the question body (which I believe preserves the original intent of the OP) and also edited in an extra paragraph taken from one of the OP's comments, to further clarify his intent.


You make a good point about this particular question actually being mentioned in the policy on science questions. However, one poorly chosen example doesn't invalidate the intent of the policy, which is still as in the quoted header and paragraph above. Perhaps that post could be edited to provide some more clear-cut examples of on-topic and off-topic science-related questions.

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    I disagree with your reasoning. This is a highly upvoted policy answer. There have been no objections to the examples given. This seems a perfect example of the sort of question that should be left to quietly die. Any actual attempts to generate an answer will be pure maths nonsense since we can't possibly know what the underlying technology for this "Heat Ray" actually is. – Valorum Feb 16 '17 at 0:27
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    @Valorum To be fair, I hadn't realised that this specific question was linked to from the policy answer when I VTROed; I cast my vote based on the intent of the policy, without checking specific examples. IYO, what makes this question less on-topic than, say, the Star Forge / Death Star one linked above? – Rand al'Thor Feb 16 '17 at 0:30
  • We have in-universe descriptions of the relative sizes of the two objects. That makes comparing them trivially simple. – Valorum Feb 16 '17 at 0:32
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    @Valorum How about this question then (which has never been VTCed to date, and which you answered)? – Rand al'Thor Feb 16 '17 at 0:36
  • That's a pretty fair example of something that should be closed. VTC added. Actually, I think my initial thought was "Are you asking how much a bus weighs if it's filled with water?" before I got sidetracked into playing with the numbers... – Valorum Feb 16 '17 at 0:38
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    How do you call an example from one of our most highly voted policies, and thus most likely to be vetted, a poorly chosen one? – user31178 Feb 16 '17 at 0:52
  • @CreationEdge Because the choice of that example seems to conflict with the intent of the policy. – Rand al'Thor Feb 16 '17 at 0:56
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    @Valorum Actually, looking more closely, there have been objections to the examples given there - in fact, such objections inspired the second-highest voted answer. – Rand al'Thor Feb 16 '17 at 0:57
  • (To be clear, I'm happy to be argued out of my position on this question. I was following the established policy as I understand it, and if anyone can explain to me how that question doesn't count as "In-Universe Explanations -- Even Based On Real Science", then I'll happily re-close it.) – Rand al'Thor Feb 16 '17 at 0:58
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    Not if the intent of the policy was to close that question and others like it – user31178 Feb 16 '17 at 0:58
  • @CreationEdge Well, the intent was presumably to establish a definite general policy on science-based questions - namely, the one laid out in bold at the top of the answer - rather than to get specific questions closed (in fact, that question was already closed when Mike's meta post was written). – Rand al'Thor Feb 16 '17 at 1:00
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    @Randal'Thor that question does not require any in-universe information to answer. It it literally asking "how much power does it take to melt steel". The fact that a fictional heat ray did it is irrelevant to the answer. The whole point of the policy is to prevent such "tojan horse physics" questions. – KutuluMike Feb 16 '17 at 1:00
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    @KutuluMike - Boat programming is the Stack Exchange terminology. – Valorum Feb 16 '17 at 1:03
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    @KutuluMike Perhaps the policy answer would benefit from a few examples of on-topic questions as well as a few of off-topic ones? – Rand al'Thor Feb 16 '17 at 1:08
  • Bus question is now closed – Valorum Feb 16 '17 at 12:31

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