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My first question here was this one:

What real-world substance most closely corresponds to mithril?

Admittedly it's getting old, but it still bugs me that it got closed. How can I fix it to make it constructive and useful?

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The close reason is a pretty good place to start when understanding why it was closed and how to fix it (emphasis mine):

This question is not a good fit to our Q&A format. We expect answers to generally involve facts, references, or specific expertise; this question will likely solicit opinion, debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion.

There is no real answer: mithril is not a real-world substance. Asking what substance most closely relates to it is a matter of interpretation and what set of properties one focuses on.

Ask yourself: what does a correct answer to the question look like? How do you determine what the correct answer is to the question? If it's just a matter of personal preference or opinion and you're not looking for a correct answer, that's exactly the type of question that doesn't work well on the Stack Exchange engine:

You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page.

If your motivation for asking the question is “I would like to participate in a discussion about ______”, then you should not be asking here. (You are more than welcome to have such discussions in our real time web chat.) However, if your motivation is “I would like others to explain ______ to me”, then you are probably OK.

To prevent your question from being flagged and possibly removed, avoid asking subjective questions where …

  • every answer is equally valid: “What’s your favorite ______?”
  • your answer is provided along with the question, and you expect more answers: “I use ______ for ______, what do you use?”
  • there is no actual problem to be solved: “I’m curious if other people feel like I do.”
  • we are being asked an open-ended, hypothetical question: “What if ______ happened?”
  • it is a rant disguised as a question: “______ sucks, am I right?”

Right now, the question as written is an open-ended hypothetical discussion topic where every answer is equally valid. So, to get the question back into constructive territory, I recommend elaborating on:

  • why you think it corresponds to a real metal or alloy of metals
  • the prerequisites of a correct answer; that is, what answer are you looking for?
  • how it relates to understanding the book itself

That last two points are key for meeting the "practical, answerable" and "based on problems you actually face" part of the guidelines. Obviously, when we're talking about Science Fiction and Fantasy, there aren't a whole lot of problems you actually face when asking a question here. Your job, unless your job is awesome, doesn't ride on you knowing who Tom Bombadil is or why Douglas Adams picked 42 as the ultimate answer. But knowing the answer to those questions enriches one's understanding of the underlying works, and is the core "problem" every avid Science Fiction and Fantasy fan faces when enjoying those genres.

So if you can explain why knowing the answer to your question expands your understanding of Middle Earth or what Tolkien was trying to do, that'd definitely go a long way in my book to creating a question that's not only constructive, but really the best of what SciFi.SE has to offer.

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I can think of two ways to answer your question:

  • The SF writer's point of view: did the author choose mithril to have properties similar to a real-world material? I don't think Tolkien cared, he wasn't a hard SF writer. So there's nothing to say on that count.
  • The real world point of view: is there a real-world material that has the properties described by Tolkien? That's not an SF question, more of a materials physics question.

Ok, by this reasoning it might look like the question should be closed as off-topic rather than non-constructive, but I think the upshot is that your question fails to interest SF readers (in their capacity as SF readers). There's nothing to say on the topic that touches on SF expertise. In addition, “most closely” is a vague qualification, so there's a risk that answers would strike up a debate on who had the “closest” answer (didn't happen here, but could have).

(There's a Stack Exchange site about physics, by the way, but while a question like “how to explain this (real!) material's properties” would be a good fit, a question like “what's a material with these properties” would not. Here's a Physics.SE moderator's opinion.)

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In my opinion, a question that is closed such a long time after it was asked and with a large number of upvotes, is usually not close-material.

However, there are ways in which you can make it fit better to the site specs. For example, you might ask "Is mithril magical in nature", and then follow it up with asking about any real-world examples.

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    It wasn't closed "such a long time after it was asked", it was closed 26 hours after it was asked. jprete is just asking about it now, 2 months after the closure. – user366 Jul 22 '11 at 22:59

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