Climate change, UFOs, and more with the Space Gal

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Climate change, space, UFOs – today we are talking science. We are joined by Emmy-nominated host of the Netflix show “Emily’s Wonderlab“, the Appalachian planetary powerhouse Emily Calandrelli aka The Space Gal.  We talk about growing up in West Virginia, UFOs, sending bombs to space, Mothman, and more! Did you miss our most recent episode? Check it out here!


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Interview Transcript

Chuck Corra: This was actually the most difficult prep I’ve ever done for an interview because there are so many things that we could talk with you about. But one thing that, that I think we’d love to start with is your experience of being a West Virginian.

John and I are both from Parkersburg and he still lives there. I moved away and I always like asking people from West Virginia that moved out what that experience was like for them. For me, it was a little complex.

I never really appreciated where I was from until I left.

The unique experience of growing up in West Virginia

Emily Calandrelli: West Virginia was just all I knew for a very long time. All of my family’s from West Virginia. My extended family is from West Virginia grandparents, great-grandparents like, we were all west Virginians through and through. My mom worked for the university at the football office.  And so leaving the state was very scary.  Just because that was my comfort blanket, being nearby anybody who I could ever need ever.  And so I think leaving also gave you a perspective of what was unique about West Virginia? Because when I went somewhere, I would often be the first West Virginian that people would meet.

They would ask me what it was like growing up in West Virginia. That was the first time that I had to be a little bit more introspective of what was it like. It was definitely I think eye-opening that my experience growing up was more unique than some of my peers.

Leaving West Virginia

Chuck Corra: Yeah, for sure.  I’m glad that you mentioned that because that’s something that I have certainly felt. My experience is a little different because I moved to Michigan. Most people I’d met there had never met a West Virginia in their life, which to me was just mind-blowing. 

Emily Calandrelli: Yeah.  It was the same experience for me. Trying to tell people what a pepperoni roll is, is always interesting. I’m like, it’s a crucial part of my identity!

How do you not understand how unique this is! And why does it sound so boring to you when it is absolutely revolutionary? 

Big John: That’s a good point.  We feel the same way.  A lot of our listeners feel like they have to hide their Appalachian roots in order to advance their careers.

Did you ever feel like that?

Communicating to broad audiences about science

Emily Calandrelli: I think for me, it’s been a little different because I never had that Southern West Virginia accent that comes along with its own stereotypes.  For me being part of West Virginia or being from West Virginia, I think gave me a unique perspective in my industry.

That was always something that I leaned into, not away from.  I meet other science communicators who want to talk about climate change to a broad audience. And they come from these bubbles where everybody already agrees with scientists.

So I think learning from somebody who comes from a region where that is not the case, there’s a lot to learn from that. And so I think people are really interested in that project. 

Chuck Corra: Appalachians, in general, are really an underrepresented socioeconomic minority in a lot of ways

I’m glad that you mentioned science communicator because that was what I was going to get into next. I think that this is something that’s such a cool part about your profession and what you do. So I’d love for you to, if you don’t mind,  explain what it means to be a science communicator.

Being a science communicator

Emily Calandrelli: Yeah. My job involves telling people about science and trying to make science more accessible and welcoming to more people. And I do that across many different platforms. So I have books, mostly children’s books.  I have different science TV shows both for kids and adults.

So, I do a lot of public speaking and I do a lot of science communication on social media. What I try is to take everything that’s happening in the news and translate it in a way that everybody can understand without having a science background.

Chuck Corra: You’re really effective at using your platform and expertise to push back against things like disinformation.

I’m wondering if you could speak to that. 

Science disinformation on social media

Emily Calandrelli: Yeah, there definitely can be. I think because social media is so accessible now everybody has access to so much information.  It’s hard to filter out what information is trustworthy and what information isn’t.  One of the biggest news headlines recently in my industry was that rocket was falling to earth was launched by China.

There was a lot of misinformation because an event like this sounds really scary. You had these clickbait headlines that are designed to scare you, even though there was no chance of it hitting you or anyone.

I like to come in and be like, you know what? I get it, it does sound scary. Let’s talk about the probability of it actually hitting you or anybody. I try to calm people’s fears and give a little nuance to the situation. With so many of these things, it’s easier to imagine this very simplified explanation that is wrong.

Sometimes I try to make a more complex description of what’s happening. That is a little bit more nuanced, but is accurate.

STEM for younger audiences, particularly girls

Big John: That’s obviously really incredible work that’s stuff that obviously we need more of, especially in today’s society.  So let’s transfer over to Netflix and what you got going on there. Something that you’ve hit on is getting younger audience members to come into STEM. Part of that is getting girls interested in STEM. Are you seeing more young girls come into stem?  Do that, do you think these things are working? 

Emily Calandrelli: I’d love to see some more recent numbers. It’s hard to know. To be quite honest because it takes a while to get that data in. The work that we’re doing now is going to be hard to know whether it was effective until five or 10 years from now.

However, personally, anecdotally, what I see is with my show on Netflix, I am a female science presenter. On a platform like Netflix doing science experiments. And I think two people in my world and the TV world, don’t really realize that is something that’s entirely unique. That was just, I think, a cool show that they were like, yeah let’s go ahead and pick up this one.

“In the world of science television, that is ground-breaking. I was nine months pregnant doing science experiments on the largest streaming platform in the world.”

But in the world of science television, That is groundbreaking. I was nine months pregnant doing science experiments on the largest streaming platform in the world. It was so cool! I had comments and messages from families all over the world that we’re like, “my kids have never seen anything like this. My boys are now drawing pictures of female scientists. My girls say that they now want to grow up to be a scientist and a mom, because before they didn’t think they could be both.”

On Halloween, there were dozens of girls across the country that dressed up as me. Some of them even added a pillow to their stomach to be pregnant because they wanted to be a scientist for Halloween.

This is the dream to create something like this. It feels like it’s having a real impact because of the representation. It filled this gap in representation that it filled, that it was just really cool to see. 

Chuck Corra: That’s gotta be so rewarding.

Emily’s Wonderlab science show on Netflix

Emily Calandrelli: Yeah. That’s the good stuff. I don’t think I realized that it was going to have quite that impact It was. I’ve been doing stuff like this for a while, but just not directly for little kids. Then when I did this one, I was like, oh, I want to do more of this. This feels good. It feels really good. 

Big John: I realized I asked you that question and I didn’t even tell our listeners the show. So it’s Emily’s Wonderlab, can you just tell us a little bit about what you do on the show? 

Emily Calandrelli: Yes. So Emily’s Wonderlab is a show for preschool age and up, and it’s a science show where in each episode I do one larger than a life science experiment, where I make something explode or we make a pool of slime, or we add we create like a huge pool of something called Oobleck where kids have to walk across without sinking and just something that’s really wonderful and bring science to life.

Then at the end of each episode, I do an at-home science experiment using materials that you probably already have around your kitchen and around your house so that people watching the show can bring all of the science that we’re doing into their own home. 

Working with Bill Nye the Science Guy

Big John: You obviously remind me of is Bill Nye. I saw that you were are a correspondent on his show. So this is really just a selfish question. And I know that there’s going to be a lot of people who want to know this, what is it like to work with Bill Nye, the science?

Emily Calandrelli: Oh, it’s so good.  He is the best. I remember that. So this actually brings West Virginia into the mix. So I remember interviewing for that position and I assumed that I would be interviewing with someone at Netflix or someone with the production company. But no, I interviewed with Bill, and so the day that I was interviewing, I was a nervous wreck.

I had a stomach ulcer and I was like speed-reading through all his books, because I thought that he might ask me a question about one of the books that he’s written. Then I was so nervous, but it ended up going incredibly well because I told him I was from West Virginia and he had just given a talk somewhere in West Virginia.

Talking to Bill Nye about West Virginia

And we talked about how west Virginia’s relationship with Cole kind of influenced a lot of the state’s feelings toward climate change and environmental policies. And I think I helped give a little bit of context to why the situation is so dire there and all of the help that west Virginians need so that they can have the Liberty and bandwidth to even think about climate change.

I think that is what landed me the job. And it went really well. And he’s exactly, as you would imagine like a nerdy family member who just always wants to talk about science. I remember when in the writing room for Bill Nye Saves the World on Netflix, that’s the show that I am a correspondent for him on, there was one time where we were going over what we wanted to talk about in the show.

He brings this science experiment, like out of his pocket, because Bill Nye carries science experiments around with him, apparently, of course. And he was like, “oh yes, this reminds me of this science experiment.” I think he made a cloud in a bottle or something like that and he was doing it and he was explaining it.

Then after a while, the show-runner was like, “Bill, we’re never going to leave this room if you keep on talking about science. So we’re going to need you to lock it up so we can finish this episode.” But yeah, he’s exactly, as you would imagine, you. 

Doing science with Cardi B

Chuck Corra: I have one more question that revolves around your work with Netflix and everything. I saw that you had the opportunity to work with Cardi B, and really would love to know how that came about and what that experience was like for you.

Emily Calandrelli: Yeah. Oh yeah. That was so cool. I got the call on something like a Wednesday and they asked if I was available on a Saturday and I was like, I will drive to the ends of the earth to go do science with Cardi B! I didn’t know much about what it was, I was just told that it was this new show that she was doing where she’s going to try new things.

One of the things she was trying is she wanted to teach science to preschool kids. They brought me in. The funny thing was, is that I had no time to prepare because the place where they wanted me to do science was right behind the area that they were filming during the day.  So I was going to be in their line of sight.

They were like, “you’re going to have about four minutes to set up your science experiment before we bring in Cardi B.”

“All I could think of is I didn’t want to be known as the person who blew up Cardi B!”

Four minutes! I have chemicals and I used to measure them and we’re going to be mixing them together with Cardi. And all I could think of was I do not want to be the person that’s known as the person that blew up Cardi B.

So, I have my four minutes and I’m furiously measuring things in pouring things and weighing things and trying to make sure that everything is exactly as it should be. Then, she walks in and she’s exactly as you would imagine – just this beautiful presence.

I was absolutely starstruck, but the best possible thing happened!

I had all the science ready and then we had the preschool kids set up in front of us.

Cardi comes out, all the kids who have just sat down, look up, and see who’s here. And instead of saying “Cardi” they said “EMILY!”

Chuck Corra: That is so cool!

Emily Calandrelli: I kid you not Cardi looks at me huh? “Who are you?” And I was like, “oh, I have a kid show. I have a kid show!”

Chuck Corra: What a validating moment that must’ve been.

Some quick-hit science questions

 Chuck Corra: So I know that  so we’ve got a little bit of time left and there’s a couple of questions.

I’m sure that you’ve answered a lot of them, but I want to ask you them cause we have an expert on this show. So the first question I have for you: what is your take on the upcoming Pentagon briefing on their UAP unidentified aerial phenomenon?

UFOs [or UAPs] and the upcoming Pentagon report

Emily Calandrelli: I’ll be just as interested as anyone else to see their report on UAPs, otherwise known as UFO’s.  But I think what I like to remind people is that an unidentified flying object is just unidentified to you.

It doesn’t mean that it’s not identifiable by somebody else. What is most likely the case is that some of these vehicles could be a trick of the eye. It could be an optical illusion that happens all the time. Pilots often mistake the planet, Venus in the sky as a UFO. That’s one of the most commonly reported UFO’s.

This isn’t to say we don’t trust these pilots, but there are things that happen that are a trick of the eye that they could be forgiven for mistaking. They could also be aerial vehicles from another country and that’s not as exciting as aliens, but just as concerning – something that we would want to do a little bit more research on.

“I like to remind people is that an unidentified flying object is just unidentified to you.”

In my world, anytime we say, “oh, it must be aliens.” It’s a very lazy explanation because there are so many other interesting answers if you dig for them If you do the analysis

You could say aliens for anything, but if you ask the question and you follow the thread and you do a little bit more research, there’s usually a more  terrestrial explanation.

Chuck Corra: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s usually a catch-all and as you said, a lazy explanation for something that’s a lot more complex and multifaceted. I’m looking forward to the first official congressional hearing on unidentified flying objects – watching them try to navigate that will be interesting. 

Private space flight companies

Do you think that the private space flight companies like SpaceX and Blue Origins – do you think they help or hurt the overall goal of exploring space?

Emily Calandrelli: Interesting.  Private companies have always been involved in space exploration – something upwards of 80% of NASA’s budget has always gone to private companies. So like when we went to the moon, it wasn’t just like NASA. It was Boeing and IBM, etc. Now it’s a little bit more recognizable because they have these eccentric billionaires at the helm.

“Private companies have always been involved in space exploration”

We feel like it’s more private and it is to a certain extent, but what has happened is that NASA is in the business of pushing the envelope of what is possible. Before the envelope was low earth orbit, where the international space station is basically just barely in space, just barely orbiting our earth right above us.

Now, we’ve been doing that for many decades and we feel as if we know how to do that. So what’s happened is NASA has  passed the keys of lower earth orbit to SpaceX and Boeing, and some of these other companies – NASA is still doing a lot of oversight of that. It’s not just basics doing it on its own is still having the oversight of all of that.

Now, because they’re allowing SpaceX and Blue Origins and some of the others to take over that, they’re focusing on what’s never been done before. They’re back in the business of pushing the envelope of what’s never been done before. And so I think it’s wonderful that these private companies are doing this work because now they can make it more efficient.

“NASA is in the business of pushing the envelope of what is possible”

They can innovate faster, they can make it cheaper. They can do all of the things that private companies are better at doing than the government.  NASA can focus its resources on pushing the envelope of going to the moon and maybe even going to Mars. 

Chuck Corra: That’s super interesting and a really great way of framing it where the government can lay the foundation and private companies can make it better or more expedited, or make it cheaper or make it more accessible to people.

Emily Calandrelli: Not to say that there’s not criticism that is warranted because, I think especially with Musk, there’s a lot of things that he does that are…questionable at best.  There’s a lot of criticism to be had on the people who are running these companies.

“SpaceX would not exist without NASA.”

But in general, that’s just the layout of how that happened. For example, I think a lot of people have a concern that “Musk is going to be running space by himself.”

SpaceX would not exist without NASA. So he cannot do a lot of these things without NASA’s support, without the government’s support.

That is not likely to change in the future. It’s very expensive to get to space, even for a billionaire. Plus, there is a lot of federal oversight on what goes to space. Everything has to get approved. If you’re a private billionaire, you can’t just say “I want to send a bomb to space” because I think that sounds fun…like, nope… you can’t do that. 

“If you’re a billionaire, you can’t just say ‘I want to send a bomb to space because I think it sounds fun'”

So I think that a lot of the concerns that people have are because perhaps they don’t understand a lot of the oversight that currently exists, at least in the United States. 

Chuck Corra: Thank God for government regulations preventing us from bombing space because I would not put that past Elon Musk.

In your opinion, do you think in our lifetime we will see a successful manned mission to Mars?

A manned mission to Mars in our lifetime

Emily Calandrelli: Ooh. Yes. I definitely think we’ll see boots on Mars for sure.

 It’ll be interesting to see how that happens, it will be pretty expensive.  The joke is always that Mars is perpetually 10 years away because we can always get there within 10 years if we invested the time and money and energy into it. The problem is that 10 years is longer than any administration is going to be an office.

When you have a change in administration, oftentimes that also means a change in the direction of where NASA is going to go because that next president wants their own goal.

“When you have a change in presidential administration, oftentimes that also means a change in the direction of NASA”

With [George W.] Bush, we were going to the moon and with Obama, we were going to Mars; for Trump, it was going back to the moon; Now with Biden, we’re still sticking with the moon because I think everybody is like, “can we just choose?”

Mars is just much harder to get to.  But anyways, Mars. Still going to be probably 15-20 years away in my opinion, but I think we’ll get there.

Chuck Corra: You make a great point about the political barriers of that. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if I remember, one of the reasons why we were able to make it to the moon in the first place is because of the tension between the United States and the Soviet union.

Emily Calandrelli: Exactly.

Chuck Corra: There are a lot of egos there too. There’s political power. Anyway, I can’t imagine how powerful that would be to just sit in front of the TV and be able to watch that happen in front of our eyes.

NASA Artemis program

Emily Calandrelli: Very jealous of the generation that had that Apollo moment because that is just so cool to imagine.  I’ll be excited with the NASA Artemis program.

The program that they’re currently it’s currently underway is they’re going to send the first woman to the moon. So Artemis in Greek mythology is Apollo’s twin sister and so this is the kind of the follow to Apollo.

NASA's Artemis program logo
NASA’s Artemis program logo

The difference here is that they are intending to go to the moon to stay. They’re not just going to go there, grab some rocks and come home. It’s intended to be a bit more sustainable so they can do more science, more research, and learn all of the things we need to learn to be able to expand the human presence into space and live on a place like the moon.

Chuck Corra: That’s super interesting. 

Mothman: real or naw?

Big John: All right. So we’ve gotten the appetizers out of the way and the entree is here. The big one. This is the big one. Okay.  So, what’s your theory on Mothman? Is it fake? We’ve gotta get your take.

Emily Calandrelli: I don’t have any theories on Mothman. And now I’m really disappointed in myself that I don’t have any theories on it because what does that say about me as a West Virginia? I remember hearing about Mothman growing up and just being like, “oh, that’s just like a goofy, thing like Bigfoot, but in West Virginia.”

I never really learned that much about it. So honestly, I don’t know much about Mothman, unfortunately, so I have no theory. 

Chuck Corra: The prevailing explanation is that it was a barn owl [exaggerated groan]

“Alien sounds more reasonable than barn owl”

Emily Calandrelli: Alien sounds more reasonable

Chuck Corra: Right? Exactly.

Big John: You not having a theory on Mothman I think says one thing about you and that’s that you have a lot of better stuff to be focusing on. 

Emily Calandrelli: You know what I’m gonna do after this is I’m going to research Mothman and I am going to make my own theory. 

Chuck Corra: Okay. Yes. Do it, let us know about it. We will update all of our listeners on that theory. Thank you so much. This has been such a fun conversation and it’s been a really great pleasure of ours to have you on our show. You are such a great representative of the state of West Virginia, and we’re just, we’re excited to just see where you go from here. 

Emily Calandrelli: Thank you. I’m a huge fan of all like you guys are doing such great work yourself and I love seeing you succeed on Twitter and elsewhere, and I am a huge fan and follower.

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