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

by William Ledbetter

I’m not a scientist. Nor am I even an expert in fields like physics, microbiology, nano-technology, orbital mechanics, or computer science, yet I continue to bite off more than I can chew when it comes to writing about these topics. Some old piece of writing wisdom says “write what you know” and I’ve tried doing that, to an extent, but to be honest science and the universe around us are just too fascinating and they interest me well past my limited knowledge. So I’ve tried to self-educate myself on some of these topics, as I need them, but that only works up to a point. Eventually I get to the place where I don’t know what I don’t know. I don’t even know which questions to ask our Google overmind to get on the right track.


Ask for help from those who know more about a topic than you do. Embrace the scientist, geek, or expert next door! They are just like you, only maybe a little smarter.


Not being the kind who is smart enough to just give up when in over my head, I’ve found other ways to fill in my knowledge gaps. A few years ago I was researching a scientific principle called Invariant Transit Tubes, or more commonly known at the time 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 their email addresses. In a sudden fit of “oh hell, why not” I emailed all 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 actually like talking about their field of expertise. Who knew?

My next attempt proved just as fruitful. I was working on a project where an alien planet 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. This response was 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 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, still exchange emails and have lunch occasionally, and at my suggestion he was even the Science GoH at one of our local science fiction 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 nut shell, 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 life in ways I never would have imagined. So go forth and write interesting science fiction! Don’t be afraid to bite off more than you can chew. Ask for help from those who know more about a topic than you do. Embrace the scientist, geek, or expert next door! They are just like you, only maybe a little smarter.

A version of this post first appeared on the SFWA blog in August of 2014.

William Ledbetter is a Nebula Award winning writer with more than fifty speculative fiction stories and non-fiction articles published in markets such as Analog, Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Writers of the Future, Escape Pod, Baen.com, the SFWA blog, and Ad Astra. He’s been a space and technology geek since childhood and spent most of his non-writing career in the aerospace and defense industry. He administers the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award contest for Baen Books and the National Space Society, is a member of SFWA, the National Space Society of North Texas, a Launch Pad Astronomy workshop graduate, and is the Science Track coordinator for the Fencon convention. He lives near Dallas with his wife, a needy dog and two spoiled cats.

William Ledbetter PHOTO.jpg

 

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