Screw Wikipedia, Contact a Scientist

The following article was written by James Pailly. Check out James’ website (Planet Pailly) for more great articles like this.

einsteinYou’re writing an awesome, new Science Fiction epic. You’ve hammered together a great plot and filled your universe with unique, compelling characters. You’ve been doing your research to make sure the science in your story is realistic (or at least plausible), but you’ve reached a dead end. You have questions, and even though you’ve scoured the Internet and checked out every science book your local library has, you still can’t find the answers you need. There’s only one solution. It’s time to contact a scientist.

Don’t feel intimidated. Scientists are normal people, just like you and me. The only difference is that they have some specialized knowledge, knowledge that for the most part they are willing and eager to share. In fact, there’s a high probability that if you contact a scientist, he or she may be a Science Fiction fan, so they may see the opportunity to help with your Sci-Fi story as a real treat.

Now there are several ways to go about doing this. The easiest is if you already happen to have a scientist friend, but let’s assume you don’t or that your friend specializes in a field unrelated to what you’re writing about.

The next option is to cold call the nearest university with a reputable science department. Most universities list phone numbers for each department on their websites. When you call, be professional. Tell the receptionist who you are and what you’re doing and ask if there’s anyone there who might be willing to talk to you. There’s often someone around who can spare you ten or fifteen minutes (be sure to get their name so you can thank them in the acknowledgements).

Another avenue is social media. Try following individual scientists on Twitter or check out their Facebook pages if they’re public. Read what they post, make sure they’re well-versed in the subject you’re studying, and then message them to see if they’d be willing to answer your questions. I recommend exchanging emails and continuing the conversation that way, but don’t be pushy about it. If they’d rather communicate by some other means, go with that.

Be sure you have clear, specific questions to ask. That’s the most important piece of advice I can give. Don’t ask someone to explain general relativity to you. That’s way too big a subject. Instead, ask questions like “What would we have to do to make X possible?” or “If Y happened, what would be the consequences?” Once, while writing a story with a geologist as my main character, I reached out to a geologist online not so much to ask about the science of geology but about the job of being a geologist. I needed details that only a working professional could provide.

So in summation, if you have to get an expert’s opinion to help finish your story, remember these four things:
– Don’t feel intimidated. Scientists are regular people, just like you or me.
– Act like a professional.
– Ask clear and specific questions.
– Remember to mention anyone who helped you in the acknowledgements of your book.

Of course not every scientist will be willing to talk to you. I cold called SETI once and left a message, but they never got back to me. I didn’t take it personally. Like anyone in any other line of work, sometimes scientists are too busy or too stressed. Or maybe, with all the calls SETI gets from outer space, their answering machine is full. Anyway, if someone tells you no, just thank them for their time and call a different university or look for someone else on Twitter. There are lots of scientists out there, and in my experience the vast majority are more than willing to help you.

P.S.: If a scientist tells you a key element of your story is impossible, don’t despair. There’s a reason we call it Science Fiction. At some point, the writers of Star Trek discovered the transporter is impossible because of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, so they invented a device called a Heisenberg compensator. When later asked how the Heisenberg compensator worked, one of those writers answered, “Very well, thank you.” So if your idea is supposedly impossible, ask why and create your own “compensator” to fix it.


Article by J.S. Pailly.

James Pailly is a science journalist, science fiction writer, and illustrator.  His current project, The Tomorrow News Network, is a series of short stories about time traveling journalist Talie Tappler. Visit tomorrownewsnetwork.com to read her adventures for free, and check out his website Planet Pailly for more great articles like this one.


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