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I am frankly concerned by the closure of this question:

What are the olfactory chemicals in whiteboard/permanent markers and what do they bind to in the nose, lungs, and brain?

and in particular by the comments on its topicality. I commented also, but I think the point merits fuller discussion here.

Essentially, it looks like the question was closed because part of it is asking about some organic solvents. This seems to me incredibly short-sighted. All of biology is intricately interwoven with chemistry, physics, mathematics. Is a question that mentions salt solutions "chemistry" or one about electrical potentials "physics"? Should it then be broken up into pieces and distributed across multiple SE sites? Who on earth could that approach possibly benefit?

The tendency to salami-slice disciplinary boundaries and jealously police them is fundamentally destructive to science and should be resisted at all costs. I genuinely fail to see how this site can hope to be of any value to anyone if it operates with that kind of attitude. Few enough people are interested in it in the first place.

Clearly, the question in question is not a great one, and there might be a different discussion to have about that. We're in beta and should certainly try to improve such questions. But it is absolutely a question about biology, relating to sensory receptors and the perception of sweetness. It very clearly isn't a question like "How does one synthesise 1,1,1-trichloroethane?" or whatever, which would be better asked of a bunch of chemists.

As the range of scientific disciplines with their own SE sites grows, this sort of issue seems likely to arise more often. So how can we avoid fragmenting to the point where we just turn away questions and are left with nothing?

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Would it not be better to try and re-word questions into fitting the biology niche? For example why does salt water help sore throats could easily be changed into "why do hypertonic solutions have anti-septic effect". The asker even hinted that he knew to go along those lines even if the question could have been better phrased to be more in keeping. Is it not better to try and answer questions with biological knowledge (even if it means modifying them to do so) than ignoring what may be interesting biology?

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I agree with walkytalky who also has just identified why we are called biologists, physicists, chemists etc. and not "natural philosophers" any longer! Increasing complexity inevitably leads to fragmentation and specialism.

However, I don't see why the (perhaps better worded) "What compounds cause the 'sweet' smell in whiteboard or permanent markers?" is not fair game for Biology SE. Noses are biological after all ;)

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  • $\begingroup$ Agreed, that question is absolutely about how an organism interacts with the environment, in this case a class of organic chemicals. Just because a question doesn't mention the word biology, or necessarily specify it's looking for a biological answer, if it can be interpreted in a biological way, we should allow it. $\endgroup$ Feb 9 '12 at 21:35
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The problem with this specific question is that it consists of two entirely seperate questions, one of those is on-topic and the other off-topic.

The question what produces the sweet smell has pretty much nothing to do with biology, and biologists are also not especially qualified to answer this question.

The second part, about which receptor that substance binds would be a biological question and on-topic here. Unfortunately, it's impossible to answer without having a question to the first part.

I would consider physical or chemical questions about biological systems entirely on-topic here. There are a lot of chemical or physical methods used by biologists, and the application of those to biological systems is certainly a worthy topic for this site.

In this specific case, it's impossible to answer the biological question without having an answer to the non-biological question first. I would have preferred to rewrite the question to be on-topic, but I can't see a way to do that here.

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    $\begingroup$ Obviously, I disagree. The notional first question is not chemistry. It is specifically posed -- and ISTM can only be posed -- in terms of a sensory response. It's likely that some chemists will know it anyway, but it's just as likely some biologists will. Someone studying those receptors would be expected to know what stimulates them. If you insist on dividing the question into two parts to satisfy a spurious disciplinary purity, that is pretty close to deciding that it will never be answered at all... $\endgroup$
    – walkytalky
    Dec 19 '11 at 21:56

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