Could (Can) You Really Contact A College Professor If You Have A Question About Their Discipline?

Not yet a professor (am postdoc, hopefully get a position in next few years), but I view answering questions from the public as part of the job (learning something and not sharing the knowledge is worthless from a societal perspective). I tend to get a few emails from the public after a newspaper article or something comes out about me or my work, and i try to answer them if I think the question is serious. (I have gotten a few trying to sell me stuff, I ignore those).

I’m currently talking to someone about protecting windmills against lightning. This person has gotten advice from their lightning protection company they don’t really like and so has reached out to me. Unfortunately in this case I’m not able to be really helpful as I know very little about lightning protection, and I don’t want to be liable if he takes my advice and a windmill gets burnt down because of it.

I guess this is an aspect that the public may not see clearly, is that something you think may be part of the prof’s expertise may actually not be. (e.g. I study lightning, but I know nothing about weather and little about lightning protection). Another aspect is that academics move around a lot. The email adress you have may no longer be valid.

I once wrote to a folklorist (Professor Jan Harold Brunvand of the University of Utah) whose books I’d read. I mentioned that I’d given several of his books as gifts to friends, and implied that he’d made a mistake in documenting a particular urban legend. This was the one about Uncle Don, the children’s radio host who’d referred to his audience as “little bastards” over a hot mic. Brunvand claimed it had never happened, while I had heard (what I thought were) actual recordings of it in TV ads for ‘blooper’ compilation records when I was a kid.

The professor replied with a chapter from his upcoming book (which he asked me not to share) which expanded on his previous documentation: some of the bloopers on those records had been recreations of rumored incidents. And that there was no actual recording of the Uncle Don gaff. He also thanked me for buying his books.

I suspect that Brunvand is an inspiration to many of us at the SDMB. His books are (along with a few other source) where many of us learned to look carefully at stories we heard and to do some research before we believed them. They are why we know we have to do some real work before we believe anything.

That’s true. I remember being told the baby-in-a-microwave story years (decades, even) ago, as if it was a true story.

I once e-mailed a respected academic physician-scientist to ask him about an upcoming conference for which he was listed as a speaker (the conference was sponsored by some fringe types with an antivaccine agenda).

He replied to thank me and noted that while he had been contacted about participating, had not agreed to do so.

It’s not something I’ve done frequently but I’ve emailed college professors in cases where some published work of theirs came to my attention and I actually had some questions I thought they could answer. I’ve always gotten responses, I’ve usually been careful to structure the question such that it’s close to “yes/no” type stuff or them providing some simple references to other works, mainly because I’m trying to be respectful of their time and don’t think it’s reasonable to solicit a really expansive answer as just a member of the public. The last time this happened was probably 10ish years ago, in a relatively niche field of personal interest to me, an interesting paper was published, I emailed the professor asking if he knew of any similar studies to expand on his work or if he had any suggestions on literature I could look into that would be informative, he gave me good answers.

It just occured to me: I don’t suppose this was one mass email, was it?

You might have been wrong about the part I’ve bolded.

There was a military history expert/historian who wrote a book about post-WW2 unproduced tanks and he got something wrong about a hypothetical deployment history (something like he said if the country was able to fund and deploy it it would have been deployed in 1950, but the problem was that clashed with a date he said in another part of the book saying that countries military projects couldn’t be finished until well after 1954) and I emailed him around 2005ish about which answer was correct, and he sent me an email back the next day basically saying “Yeah you’re only the 3rd person who caught this since being published. Yeah it was just a simple mistake I made the latter date was correct, I’ll try to correct it if it ever gets reprinted.”

There is a service called HARO (help a reporter out) where reporters and other writers request input from all kinds of people. My wife reads it (is is free for readers, pay for posters) to find places to plug her books. She has forwarded some to our daughter who is a professor. Her university also has a press office.

I’ve noticed that the local news station will email or call a number of profs. Most of us just say “I could make an educated guess, but Dr. Joe Schlobotski is the guy who’d really know.” And I find out my colleagues answered the same way.

Sometimes I alert Joe, but usually I just see him being interviewed on the news a week later. Then again a month later, then next year… once they find a prof that’ll answer questions and not freeze up on camera, they tend to stick with them.

I was fortunate enough to listen to a radio program / writers conference where writers shared their literary mistakes and readers response … “I’m probably the thousandth person who written to you about this, but actually that star is not visible from the southern hemisphere at that time of year”… They were mostly just grateful that someone was reading their book.

Something else: a lot of responses in this thread are from professors who wrote books. It’s been my observation for a long time that people who do a lot of writing don’t seem to find writing letters/notes as onerous as the rest of us do.

To be fair, it wasn’t birds in general, it was the common loon, and I wrote to an ornithologist who was an expert in that field. I asked his help because I’d read seven books on the subject and they split down the middle (with one abstention) on this question: Can this bird walk.

His answer? No. Their feet are placed too far back on their bodies. When they go on land to nest, they lie on their stomachs and shove themselves along with their feet. This is the only time that they’re on the land anyway.

Before the internet I was working on a project that involved working with molten salts. I researched books on chemical engineering and read academic papers and found one written by a guy who was a professor at some polytechnic institute in upstate New York. So I called him, he was most helpful with my basic questions and mentioned that he could help me further by doing an ARPANET seach for my client for a reasonable fee.

I asked the client if they were interested and told them he was a PhD from some poylytech institue in upstate NY, Renssellaur Polytechnical Institute I said and they said that was SOME polytechnical institute! He provided a vaste amount of information and the client was well pleased as this guy had literally written the book on molten salts.

I was an English Lit major, but I took Physics for Dummies. The professor’s name was Resnick. I don’t remember his first name. But this easily 45 years ago. So likely not the same guy?

Were you at Rensselaer? If so, it might well have been the same guy. (Though there were few liberal arts majors, so I doubt you were there.)

Nah, UCLA.

Well that’s an example of Nominative determinism ! What will I do with my life? Clearly, I should be a Physics Professor …

We don’t need to do anything to believe in something. So don’t say that we need to do work to believe in anything.

Or is it work to just look around?

Hah! Small world … we used Halliday and Resnick in 1991 in South Africa!