The Sounds of Science

“Stories are usually about people, those are the ones we remember. We don’t remember stories about transuranic elements,” says Joe Palca, science correspondent for NPR. We visited Palca at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., where we got a behind-the-scenes tour of his program, Joe’s Big Idea.

Joe Palca is a longtime science correspondent for National Public Radio and guest host for Science Friday. He is also the coauthor of Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us. The magazine΄s editor in chief, Michal Meyer, asked Palca what it΄s like to be the voice of science to NPR listeners.

 

What drives you?

I think there’s a whole lot of interesting science out there that people would enjoy knowing about and they don’t yet know they would enjoy it. I try to find things in science that reveal the delight and wonder scientists take in exploring the natural world, and then share it with the audience so they can have a sense of the process of how science works.

 

Describe the practice of science journalism. What do you do on a day-to-day level?

It varies quite a bit. Some days I sit at my desk and wonder what I’m going to do next. It’s mostly a case of plowing through a mountain of press releases, scientific papers, meeting reports, and the various ideas that people give me, and deciding what’s cool and interesting and worth telling. The other part is figuring out what elements I need to tell a story. Sometimes you can get by with a phone interview, and sometimes you want to travel across the country and speak with the person. Radio is different from television; radio creates pictures with words. I don’t need to go into a chemistry lab to depict it. The sound of a chemistry lab is a fume hood. There might be a few other iconic sounds. Pictures in radio are created in the minds of listeners.

 

You have spent three decades writing about science. What changes have you noticed during that time?

I think the biggest change is the ease with which information is shared. It stuns me that I can be sitting at my desk and wonder if Lyndon Johnson said what he was reported to have said at a meeting at the Smithsonian in 1965. Because the Johnson archives are available online, I can get the answer in two minutes instead of months. It changes my job, and it changes how science communicates. If I want a scientist’s opinion of a research article, I e-mail him or her a PDF and an hour later I get an answer back. It changes how journalists cover scientists’ work.

 

What does science journalism do well and what does it do badly?

It’s hard to clump science journalism as an entity; the best tells stories with balance and perspective that makes science accurate and realistic. The worst journalism, and I don’t think it’s limited to science journalism, is to make things sound more important than they are. I was stunned a few months ago to hear on a news station about a cure for breast cancer. Of course it wasn’t [true]. But there’s this temptation.

 

How do you represent something accurately and still make it into a news format that is looking for big news all the time?

I’ve given up on looking for headline stories. I’ve gone the other direction. I spend a lot of time telling editors that my story isn’t that important. I’m sure my editor gets frustrated. Then, once we can agree that it’s not that newsworthy, I say, “Let me tell you how interesting it is.” That’s how I’ve stayed employed as a radio reporter for 20 years: talking about interesting things.

Look back a year and you’ll see that there are diminishingly few really important science stories out there. And some of those are artificial. I covered the day the average parts per million of CO2 as measured by Mauna Loa [Observatory] reached 400. Was it a big story? There was no story. What’s the difference between 399 and 401? The story is in the slope. Many times we manufacture points of news in science because there isn’t that much really new to say. Another example: the huge spike in BRCA coverage was nothing to do with any discoveries [about breast-cancer genes]; it had to do with Angelina Jolie revealing her breast-cancer status. That was driving the story. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not intrinsically scientifically important.

 

What one thing would you most want your audience to take away from your work?

I think a sense of wonder about how interesting the natural world is and how inspiring and delightful it is to explore. I still get excited when I tell these stories, and I want to share that excitement. Sometimes the science is intrinsically interesting, but a lot of times it takes a bit of explaining as to why it’s interesting. Some scientists talk about their work in a very interesting way and all I need to do is switch on the microphone, and sometimes I have to help them out. I like talking to both kinds. I will help the scientist in any way I can to make the story as interesting as possible.

 

How do you deal with divisive issues like climate change and evolution?

People say, “How do you cover controversial topics?” I say, “As a science correspondent, these issues aren’t terribly controversial.” There’s not a lot of controversy in the scientific community about whether global warming is happening. Similarly with evolution. People aren’t arguing in the scientific community about it. It’s done. The problem is covering things that are ambiguous. People have different ideas about when life begins. Scientists sometimes make it sound as though there’s a scientific explanation of when life begins. It’s arbitrary. When do you decide?

 

What kind of responses do you get from listeners?

Some people take pains to point out flaws no matter how trivial. I don’t exclusively get negative comments, but they are the ones that are most memorable. It’s amazing how vituperative people can be if their point of view disagrees from yours.

 

Your own background is in science. What advice would you give to science graduates interested in science journalism as a career?

Go for it! It’s great fun. The hardest thing is for them to throw off the notion that they’re talking to their peers and being cautious and careful about every word and worried that some professor will jump up and challenge them. It’s a whole different audience and whole different sensibilities. Let go of those fears, and tell the story with the absolute certainty that things will be left out. I condense 10 years of someone’s research into four minutes. I have to leave things out. I still struggle with that, but I am comfortable with the fact that things will not be explained fully.

 

What role should history of science play in science journalism?

It’s all about context. People forget that some ideas now taken for granted were once outrageous and unacceptable. One hundred and twenty years ago there was an ether that would slow light down. Forty years ago it was unthinkable to merge an egg and sperm in a test tube—now that’s routine. The notion of making life de novo in a test tube, that’s still pretty scary, but I think [it] will happen. We reach a point where the things that seem impossible do change. An awareness of that is useful.

 

Joe Palca gave the 2013 Ullyot Public Affairs Lecture at CHF. Listen to Palca talk about his work on CHF’s Distillations podcast by visiting chemheritage.org/palca.