This is further to my previous general question 'Why are we here?', at the request of PearsonArtPhoto.
In searching for examples to put in this, I found myself exploring here in a way I haven't done for a while. It reminded me of how much I learned in my early weeks coming here, and why I enjoyed learning about the topic in the particular way SEx.SE provides. The format is conversational, which makes it easier to absorb and feels friendly, which encourages a person to stick with it. The information comes in bite-size chunks that are pleasing because despite their brevity they give a complete perspective of one particular thing, and usually contain links if you want to learn more, very often links that a person would have a lot of trouble finding on their own. I could go to a webpage about the ISS and read about it, and get a better overview. But you know what? It is a lot more entertaining and digestible to read the ISS-related questions here. And they contain some juicy tidbits I wouldn't have gotten without reading through reams of stuff - for example the mutiny question, and the weapons in space question. And once I read them all, I actually have a pretty good overview, and I am going to remember it better because it happened in a way more like a story or a conversation. There is nothing else out there like SEx.SE. I feel its potential to advocate for the field and change public dialogue about it is very high.
I probably fit the profile of most people who come here initially looking for one or two answers and then find they spend a lot more time here than expected. My previous knowledge about space was mostly from what I read in science media for the general population and hard science fiction. Such people are an important part of the site's population of regulars. What we ask, and to some extent also the kinds of answers we write, has a disproportionate effect on the amount of traffic the site receives. The regulars who will read this post probably all know it is the most accessible and usually broad questions that get the most attention. Those are also the questions most likely to result in the casually curious and most uninformed visitors sticking around after they have looked at what got them here, or asked what they wanted to know.
This is why I so strongly feel that SEx.SE could do more to engage these people. Here are two examples of where things go wrong, in my opinion.
When you look at the edit history of this question, you find that the asker knew so little about what he was asking that site regulars probably all thought it was about launching, not reentry. The question was getting precious little attention. I read it and realized he actually wanted to know about reentry. So I answered the question, because it was a topic requiring little enough expertise that I could, and I actively search for such questions. It is now among the site's most viewed questions. I have resisted the urge to edit the question's title to 'Why are spaceship capsules shaped the way they are' out of respect for
my elders overworked people with much more experience. Perhaps the word 'frustum' piques curiosity.
It was easy to think the asker was not serious because the question was so brief and poorly phrased, but actually his English was weak, based on his behaviour I suspect he had no experience with forums, much less Stack Exchange, and he was so unfamiliar with the subject he didn't realize he didn't actually want to know what he'd originally asked. When asked if he could edit it a bit, he responded quickly. When he got his answer, he thanked me. I fear that sometimes such questions get neglected because they get mistaken for lack of effort or sincerity.
I don't care how naive the question seems, it was a great one. It just serves the beginners and the curious, not the professionals or students in the field. If there was a deluge of such questions, perhaps it would become difficult for pros and students to use the site the way that serves them. Short of that, it is the kind of thing that can set someone on the path to learning more. See the success of the What If blog and now book. I understand that pros in many of the sciences often get frustrated by people who don't want to hear why their idea would never work. And of course if you have had your fill of battling the fundamental ignorance that so distorts public perception, walk away from such inquiries and be at peace.
But. This question is the kind of thing that lights up the imagination. For kids, it's great. I have thoroughly enjoyed the answers, and they have included a number of things that, if i was less familiar with the area, would have been an introduction that really made me want to know more. I dare say that Mark Adler and Aramis also used it as a fun little paradigm-stretching exercise in thinking outside the box. I would love to see a lot more questions like this. I don't think that would take anything away from the more practical and professional questions that come in, or prevent them from receiving good attention.
This makes me wonder how the 'close' operation is working here. The question has a number of well written answers that are very informative, it has received a ton of views, and a lot of votes for the answers.