Friday, April 18, 2014
Acoustic lasers, tomatoes, and spaceships: Endi Webb talks about his life between writing and physics
If you've been closely watching Kindle book rankings on Amazon this month, as I have (ahem), you may have noticed a new star rising: The Terran Gambit, Book I in the Pax Humana Saga, came out on March 19 and quickly rose to the top 10 Kindle books in 4 different science fiction categories! Author Endi Webb is not only an accomplished science-fiction writer, but also an experimental physicist with whom, turns out, I share a common recent employer -- small world, right?
So, of course, Endi had to be my next guest here on CHIMERAS! Welcome, Endi!
EEG: From your bio: "At work, he gets to make nano-materials (really small things) with giant lasers and highly pressurized gas. His clients include NASA, the defense department, and many other government agencies that don't like to be advertised."
Let 's talk about the science you do: you work on nanotechnology, correct? What do you make, exactly, can you tell us? And what are some of the most fun things you get to do on your job?
EW: Hmm... I'm not sure how much I should say, but I study chemical vapor deposition processes, and their effect on material properties: grain size, conductivity, tensile strength, optical properties, etc. When I was an undergraduate, one of the first lab experiences I had was helping to set up a DC magnetron sputtering system, and sputter vanadium metal onto a substrate. It was one of the most magical experiences of my life. I grew up watching Star Trek TNG, and as I saw the argon light up into a beautiful purple plasma it felt like I was living a dream aboard the Enterprise. Needless to say, I was hooked.
Ever since then I've worked on a wide variety of experimental physics projects. My PhD was in thermo-acoustics, and I designed acoustic heat engines that could convert sound into electricity. Kind of like an acoustic laser. Later, I got to work with huge lasers to do.... stuff. Like, 400 watts of high quality 532 nanometer light, focused down into very small areas to create crazy high temperature gradients. Good times. But I think the best part about being a scientist is that I get paid to have fun in a physics lab and play with lasers and crap. I mean, seriously, they pay me for this stuff! It's crazy.
EEG: You are a scientist and a science lover -- how does science inspire your stories?
EW: I love science, both real and otherwise. You know during all the old Star Trek TNG episodes when Geordi or Data would start spouting off some techy mumbo jumbo, and the joke was that the audience was probably glazing its eyes over? Yeah, those were my favorite parts. In fact, one of the most disappointing parts of my physics classes was discovering that tachyons are not real.
In my books, I try to let the science inspire the story, without governing it. I mean, I write about a group of rebels trying to take down a galactic empire. Faster than light travel must be used, and any space battle must have things like bright red and blue beams pounding down on enemy starships. But I try to at least base them in science. I borrowed Isaac Asimov's "gravitics", and actually tried to come up with a theoretical framework for how gravitic drives might function. Yeah, I'm a nerd. And there is a crazy Feynman-esque scientist in the story who tries to explain the gravitic drive to the dunce of a captain, but it's done in a way with a wink and a nod to the reader that they're not supposed to get it. It's more of an homage to all the times that Geordi and Data spouted off their stuff.
So, in brief, I try to throw just enough science into the stories to give them some plausibility, and to make them fun for readers who like science as much as I do, but not so much to make it a boring reading experience for the average reader.
EEG: Your new release, The Terran Gambit is really hot right now: top 10 in three different sci-fi categories in Amazon Kindle books! Congratulations! How does that feel? And what are your plans for this new series?
EW: Actually, 4 different categories! And for a few days it was 5! Honestly, it feels a little surreal. The day I hit #507 in the whole Amazon store was just a little unreal, especially when I looked up the author rankings in SciFi. There I was, tucked right in between Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert. Seriously? This is a joke, right? Obviously, that bump didn't last, but lots of people are still buying this book, for which I'm extremely grateful.
The series will have 10 books, and if the fans clamor for more, there might be spinoffs. I also give all my mailing list subscribers free access to all the short stories I write in this universe, and I'll be adding to that collection over the coming year. Book 2 comes out in mid-May.
EEG: Why do you write?
EW: Honestly? I needed a hobby. Don't get me wrong, I've always had the little voice in the back of my head that said I should write novels, and I've even started a couple over the years. But after a particularly long video game binge two and half years ago (curse you, Skyrim!), I sat down and realized I was wasting my life. I mean, I really, really like videogames, and I'll probably always play them, but in that moment I added up all the time I'd spent in the previous 6 months, and it was.... embarrassing. So for my new years resolution, I decided I wanted to do something "big". I didn't know what "big" meant at the time, but it had to be life changing. A huge accomplishment. I wrote down a list of ideas, and writing a novel came out on top. So for 3 weeks I did nothing but write, the result of which was my first novel that I published, The Rohvim, Book 1: Metal and Flesh. After several months of editing, and a re-write of the first 30%, it actually came out to be a pretty good book.
Needless to say, after writing a novel in 3 weeks, I caught the bug. Bad. I followed up with a sequel, and that Rohvim series will probably end up with at least 2 trilogies. But my first love is Space Opera, and I made the switch to that in November last year for NanoWriMo. The Terran Gambit was the result.
EEG: Hehe, I completely understand. I need a hobby, too. One, that is. ;-)
Ok, I have to ask. What's up with tomatoes? :-)
EW: I love tomatoes. Don't judge me! But seriously, I really like tomatoes. One year living in Los Alamos, I grew 127 plants. No joke. Last year I only grew like 37, but here in Alabama, 37 tomato plants is equivalent to 7,400 plants in the high desert of NM. We had to start giving them away. It was glorious.
I love experimenting with all the thousands of varieties available. When the seed catalogue arrives in December, I go through that thing like other men go through a playboy. I hold it up sideways and just stare at it, paging through slowly and ogling all the beautiful reds and oranges and yellows and purples. My dream is to retire to a tomato farm and be a hermit writer/tomato grower. Kind of like how Captain Picard retires to his vineyards after captaining the Enterprise. Only with fewer starships and phasers.
EEG: Haha, that would be fun! Thank you, Endi, for being with us today!
You can follow Endi and his adventures in writing, acoustic lasers and tomato farming on his blog, Facebook, and Twitter (@endiwebb).