When deciding whether to post a question to Mathoverflow or Stackexchange the general criterion is the difficulty of the question. However, when asking a history or soft question or history question this criterion loses its importance.

Of course, a question on, say, Grothendieck's motivation for etalé cohomology belongs to MO, but what about a question regarding the coinage of the term "field", for example? The meaning of such a question can be understood by every undergrad, however, it might also be of interest to serious mathematicians.

So how would you proceed in such cases? Are there general guidelines regarding these questions and which alternative would you recommend?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Perhaps, it would be more useful to ask this question on Meta.MO $\endgroup$
    – Grigory M
    Jan 23, 2014 at 7:38
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Any question suitable for MO would be suitable for MSE (it is just that sometimes, one might have a better chance of getting a good answer on MO). $\endgroup$ Jan 23, 2014 at 8:23

1 Answer 1


It depends on what you want the answers to be like. There's a certain difference in tone between MO and MSE posts stemming from the expected audience. MO is full of real deal, bona-fide, research level mathematicians; MSE has some of those, but also undergraduates, math hobbyists, and research types from other fields. Answers on MO assume a certain level of background knowledge (or rather mathematical maturity) that isn't implicit here. Another way of saying this might be, to borrow some terminology from one of Terry Tao's essays, that MSE answers are written for pre-rigorous and rigorous audiences, while MO is aimed towards the post-rigorous stage.)

As for your example, I think an etale cohomology question would actually be fine on either site. On MO, I would expect the answers to be longer, less detailed (in terms of formulas and definitions), and more reflective on relationships to other areas of math. An etale cohomology soft question on MSE would more likely be focused on getting the main ideas across. I'd expect to see more analogies to lower level math, more references for "if you want to learn more about the subject," and in general a tone that assumes the question is being asked by a student, rather than a mathematician rediscovering his own field.


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