About 5,000 people a month around the world tune into a space-related podcast launched by three University of Central Florida professors.
What started out as conversations while walking to get coffee on campus to perk up the afternoon, turned into the Walkabout the Galaxy podcast in 2014, which this month led to the professors becoming regular guests on WMFE’s recently launched Are We There Yet? radio show.
“We started it because we were having these really interesting conversations about new discoveries that would sometimes bring in science fiction and current events and I thought this is what I’d like to hear in a topical podcast,” says physics Professor Josh Colwell.
He specializes in the early formation of the solar system and has been part of several NASA missions and projects with commercial space companies such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. He’s also a popular professor for his fun style of teaching in the classroom and online.
“We were having a blast,” says physics Assistant Professor Adrienne Dove, who studies space dust and has been recognized by NASA with the Susan Mahan Niebur Early Career Award. Like Colwell, she too works with several commercial space companies on a variety of projects. “Our conversations often led to really cool things in our work, but a lot of times they were just fun, geeky stimulating conversations. When Josh had the idea, I was all in.”
The goal of the podcast is to help people understand space science and why it matters in an entertaining way. That’s what drew Jim Cooney, the most recent addition to the team. Cooney, a cosmologist and avid stamp collector and Scrabble player, teaches introductory and advanced astronomy classes at UCF.
The trio discuss everything from potentially habitable planets, gravitational waves and red giant stars like Betelgeuse, along with commentary about Star Trek, the Mandalorian and other pop culture references. There’s also a mix of recent non-space news, science jokes and trivia. If you are lucky, you’ll catch a music rap about mathematician William Rowan Hamilton.
“Really effective science and tech communicators are rare, and they allow people that aren’t involved in science careers to have at least a basic understanding of these important and really cool topics,” says Jeremy Hunt, a software engineer from Ormond Beach. He found the podcast on iTunes a couple of years ago and calls himself a super fan. “Shows like this help make that happen and should be supported. There are many brilliant people working today, but there are far fewer of them that are really good at communicating their expertise in a way that is approachable and fun to listen to.”
He is not alone. According to the show’s analytics, it draws listeners from around the globe, including tiny villages in Germany, big cities in New Zealand, Europe and Latin America as well as people across the United States.
The show wasn’t an immediate success, however.
“Let’s just say we had a big learning curve,” Colwell says. “We’re much better now. We have better equipment and our current format, which feels right, we locked in in 2016.”
The team records in Colwell’s office, surrounded by Star Trek memorabilia, movie posters, textbooks, science journals and NASA swag. The group sits around a table, pulls some mikes from under Colwell’s desk along with a basic mixer and dive right in. The podcast is produced regularly and available online.
“Josh, Addie and Jim are experts — but they’re not boring!” says Brendan Byrne, a space reporter with NPR’s local affiliate WMFE. “I learned about the show after interviewing Josh and Addie for a story I was working on. They told me the premise of the show and it sounded great. I downloaded it and immediately became a fan. The show has this incredible ability to synthesize these complex topics in science research and astronomy and make them accessible — I think that’s the biggest draw, for me, to the show.”
When the radio station decided to launch the space-themed radio show Are We There Yet?, Bryne knew who to call.
“Josh and Addie are usually the first people I call to figure something out (when reporting), so when we were restructuring the show for WMFE and decided to add an ‘ask the expert’ segment. It was a no-brainer,” Byrne says.
The trio spend the last seven minutes of the show answering questions for listeners. Byrne characterized their work, much the way some of the podcasts fans do.
“Their conversations are passionate, intelligent and downright funny sometimes and they make the listener feel like they are right at the table with them,” he says. “What makes their conversations so great is that they are not only explaining to the listener about this complex scientific idea, but giving it valuable context and a reason for the regular person like me or you to care and pay attention to what is happing in our universe.”
For the professors, they say the show is part of their mission as educators at UCF.
Riley Havel, a second-year physics student at UCF, who did not know the professors until after listening to the podcasts, says she isn’t surprised they are now on WMFE.
“They’re a fun cast and their style is perfect for radio,” Havel says. She discovered the WTG podcast through a flyer posted on a bulletin board in the Physical Sciences Building. “The podcast keeps me up to date on lots of current events in astronomy. It feels more like talking to pals than listening to a lecture.”
Havel plans to become a planetary scientist, and said the podcast and radio segments on 90.7 WMFE have taught her a valuable lesson.
“It has helped me realize the importance of communicating science to people outside of physics or astronomy in a way that is effective and inviting,” she said. “If you don’t, what kind of impact are you really going to make?”