The Scientist Next Door: Or How to Approach Experts with Research Questions

ledbetterby William Ledbetter

A few years ago, I was researching a scientific principle called “Invariant Transit Tubes,” or more commonly known as the “Interplanetary Superhighway.” I stumbled across a paper on the topic that was, shall we a say, a bit over my head. I noticed that the paper had been co-published by three researchers, all from different establishments: MIT, JPL and the University of Turin in Italy. The publication also included email addresses. In a sudden fit of “oh hell, why not” I emailed each of these guys a simple question, hoping that at least one of them would reply. The email was short and straightforward. I identified myself as a science fiction writer who was curious about one aspect of their paper. “Could effect X be used in situation Y?” Much to my surprise, all three of them replied. It turns out that no, effect X could not be used in situation Y, which of course saved me from what could have been an embarrassing hard SF faux pas, but one of the researchers was interested in my project, asked questions, made suggestions, and over an email string that bounced back and forth for about a week, I learned a great deal about that topic and several related ones. Evidently scientists, researchers, and experts of every ilk tend to like talking about their field of expertise. Who knew?

My next attempt proved just as fruitful. I was working on a novel that needed a bizarre weather situation. I started reading about the topic and was getting nowhere, so decided to email some experts. I again used the shotgun method, sending separate personalized emails, not a mass mailing, and selected four of the top local network meteorologists. Their responses were mixed. Two of them ignored me. One replied and said he had a hard enough time dealing with real world weather, but the fourth said he was fascinated and asked if he could call me at home to discuss it in detail. A forty-minute phone conversation later and I had a wealth of information and a new contact who told me to ping him any time I had a weather question.

I can’t stress enough how valuable these connections and resources have been to me. One final example will drive that point home. Again I was reading a published scientific paper online, this one was a study for the U.S. Defense Department on defenses against a Global Ecophagy by Biovorous Nanoreplicators. Yes our government does take this seriously. I started researching the paper’s authors and realized that one of them was based at a local company just up the road from me. A company that actually builds real nanotech. I emailed the guy, again identifying myself as a SF writer, then asked him if I could buy him lunch in exchange for a few minutes of his time to talk about nanotech. Not only did I get the lunch interview, he gave me a tour of his facility and explained how all the equipment worked. Yep, I was in geek heaven. It turns out this fellow was a huge SF fan too. We became friends, have lunch several times a year, exchange emails on a regular basis and at my suggestion he was even the Science GoH at one of our local conventions. Let me assure you, he is a fun and awesome person and some of the stuff he is working on would blow your mind.

In a nutshell, don’t be afraid to approach the pros. That said, they are usually busy people and some of them will have no desire to bother with you. Keep that initial “cold call” email brief and professional, identify yourself and what you’re trying to learn, keep the focus narrow, ask specific questions and don’t expect them to write your story for you. If they don’t respond, they’re not interested so don’t email them again. If they do respond, don’t be afraid to engage them further, ask for clarifications if needed and make sure to thank them for their time.

I love being a science fiction writer, and yes, having friends and acquaintances in space propulsion, micro-biology, nanotech, computer science, materials science, planetary science, just to name a few, has indeed proved useful to my writing, but more importantly, knowing them has enriched my entire life in ways I never would have imagined. Embrace the scientist, geek or expert next door! They are just like you, only maybe a little smarter.

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William Ledbetter is a writer with more than thirty speculative fiction stories and non-fiction articles published in markets such as Escape Pod, Jim Baen’s Universe, Writers of the Future, Ad Astra and Baen.com. He’s been a space and technology geek since childhood and spent most of his non-writing career in the aerospace industry. He administers the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award contest for Baen Books and the National Space Society, is a member of the National Space Society of North Texas, is the Science Track coordinator for the Fencon convention, and is a consulting editor at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. He lives near Dallas with his family and too many animals.

3 Responses

  1. Tanya

    I’ve had a similar experience. I was researching brown dwarfs for a story, and though I found a wealth of useful info online, I couldn’t find the answer to one key question. Frustrated, I decided I’d try emailing an expert. Knowing that universities usually list email addresses on their faculty pages, I googled “brown dwarf expert” and picked a likely useful source. I shot him a brief email, exactly as you described (politely explained who I was and asked my question). It was a Sunday evening, so I didn’t expect a reply until later in the week, if I got one at all, but he replied within an hour and provided exactly what I needed. He also replied quickly to a follow-up question. I was delighted!

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