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Saying goodbye to NPR's longtime science correspondent Joe Palca

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Let's celebrate a journalist who once tried to answer something that I'm pretty sure no one else thought to ask, at least in this way - why corned beef sandwiches - and the rest of the universe - exist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Theories say the explanation may be hidden in the electric dipole moment of the neutron. It's not a moment as in a moment in time. It refers to the neutron being slightly more football shaped than perfectly spherical.

SIMON: That, of course, our colleague, correspondent Joe Palca. He's made an art form out of explaining the incredibly difficult to explain - you know, like the electric dipole moment. After 30 years - 30 years - of covering science for NPR, Joe is retiring.

Joe, say it ain't so.

PALCA: Yeah, can't really - I decided. But, you know, I ask myself, why am I leaving? - 'cause I still love what I do. And I think the answer is it just felt like it was time. And it's better to leave when people wish you wouldn't than...

SIMON: (Laughter).

PALCA: ...Wait until the other turns out to be the case.

SIMON: Better to jump than be pushed, right?

PALCA: Yeah, something like that.

SIMON: Aw. Well, we will miss you, but we have a lot to ask you on your way out of the building, OK? You've been our guide to so many important stories over the years. What drove you into science reporting?

PALCA: I think the interesting part to me is - like, that question you asked, what's the electric dipole moment? And by the way, it's the electric dipole moment...

SIMON: Excuse me, you asked that question.

PALCA: Oh, right.

SIMON: I merely quoted it. It had never occurred to me in all my life. But, yes.

PALCA: Well, exactly. You're perfectly right. And I never heard of it either. And I didn't know what it meant or anything. But I knew that a lot of people were spending a lot of time looking for it. And there's something magical about the search for something that's so obscure but potentially so important. Obviously, a lot of people thought this was a story about corned beef sandwiches and were disappointed when they had to learn about the electric dipole moment of the neutron. But I feel that there's a beauty in that and that if people can be shown that beauty or help them see that beauty, that you have a window on - that's wonderful.

SIMON: Joe, tell us about covering the Mars rover landings from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

PALCA: Well, I got sent there for the first time for Mars in 1997, when there was this little mission called Pathfinder, which was - compared to other NASA missions, it was a little more like, let's go down to the barn and build a spaceship kind of thing. It didn't have thousands of engineers. It was a small team. And that mission was successful.

Then the next time there was a landing, they sent David Kestenbaum, and the lander crashed and was destroyed on Mars. And then they said, well, let's go back to Palca. And I did the next four in a row, and they all succeeded - and then several more in a row. So I've actually covered all the successful Mars landings since 1997, and the only one that failed was the one when they foolishly assigned David Kestenbaum to the story. So NASA is actually quite nervous that I'm stepping away.

SIMON: Yes. And my gosh, with good reason.

PALCA: Yep.

SIMON: You know, we have a clip from your piece about the second Mars rover landing back in 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROB MANNING: At this time, we are five minutes, 55 seconds after entry. We should be bouncing on the ground.

PALCA: Bouncing on the ground protected by airbags, that is. If the airbags didn't inflate, the rover wouldn't bounce so much as splat. But they did inflate.

MANNING: We're getting a bounce to signal.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yeah.

MANNING: We're getting a bounce signal.

PALCA: You know, when I hear that, the hair still stands up on the back of my neck 'cause that's Rob Manning who's saying that. And, you know, I got to know him, and I hear his excitement. And it's pretty powerful.

SIMON: And what's it like to cover a moment that is part of history?

PALCA: Well, you want to be honest to the moment. And there were some people who said, oh, Joe, you know, you're getting too excited. You're making it sound, you know, like you're a cheerleader. And I'm thinking, no, I'm not being a cheerleader. I'm talking about that moment. It was amazing. You know, you can go back and say, well, should we have spent the money, and did it work, and did we get enough out of it? And that's fine. But at that moment, it was pretty spectacular.

SIMON: Joe, there's a tragic moment I think both of us remember - February 1, 2003. The Columbia space shuttle fell apart on reentry over the skies of Texas. We were both in the studio that day for our live coverage.

PALCA: I remember it really well. Gwen Thompkins called my house shortly after nine that morning and she said...

SIMON: Gwen - Gwen was our editor then...

PALCA: Yeah, that's right. And she said, the shuttle is delayed. And my first thought was, no. Delayed is not good because there's no, like, go around and try again. And so I jumped in my car and came down to the studio, and we tried to figure out what was going on, you know, that was - nobody knew. And I didn't know that much about the mission, but I knew about the program, and I was able to add some perspective, I guess.

SIMON: Yeah. All the science we've learned about from you - what stands out for you that you learned and were able to pass on to so many?

PALCA: I think - you know, there's another one you may not have heard of called CRISPR. It's a biological technique for altering genes or clipping out genes and things like that. And when I first read about CRISPR, I had no idea what it was. And I still - if you pressed me, I couldn't exactly tell you how it works, but I know what it does. And when I heard this from the woman who did it, I thought, this woman is going to win the Nobel Prize. And yeah, she won the Nobel Prize - Jennifer Doudna.

SIMON: Joe, I think a lot of us - a high point for WEEKEND EDITION listeners was you made a pickle glow. Do you remember that?

PALCA: Yeah. You guys decided to do a live show, and somebody said, hey, Joe, can you come up with a demo that is cool-looking?

SIMON: Well, we do - a live show before an audience.

PALCA: Yeah. Well - sorry. That's what I meant. And we did this live. I mean, I can't believe we tried it. It might have been a big failure, but turned out it wasn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PALCA: So let's plug it in and see what happens. You can see it's - now, I don't know if you can see Scott, but there just - there's a little bit of smoke coming out of the end.

SIMON: It's a pickle, Joe. I don't...

PALCA: Well, now, just wait a minute.

SIMON: Oh, wait. I see some smoke.

PALCA: Yes, you see some smoke.

SIMON: I see some smoke coming out of the end. It looks like - oh, my word - is that...

(CHEERING)

SIMON: The pickle is ablaze. The pickle's aglow.

Wow. You know, I sound as excited as if - another moon landing (laughter).

PALCA: Well, you know, glowing pickles have that effect on some people. What can I say? It was a - it was a great moment. Kind of silly. Not the most serious piece I've ever done, but it was fun. And it did have a bit of science.

SIMON: But you touch on something which I think has really enlivened your work. Sometimes there doesn't have to be an obvious application. It's just marvelous to know and to observe the majesty of science.

PALCA: Yeah. There's a famous question that somebody was asking in Congress, actually, about the Fermilab, which was national accelerator. And this senator was asking him, well, how is this going to help the defense of America? And the scientist says, it's not. And he said, not at all? He said, no. It's just going to make America more worth defending.

And I think it's part of our culture to explore the natural world. And it makes us better for it. And some things we'll learn, and they may be stuck on a shelf and never turn out to be all that relevant - and some things that'll be fantastically relevant and change the way we think of ourselves.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, Joe, thank you for everything you've done for us and meant to us over these past 30 years. And it is a sad honor for me to say one last time - NPR's Joe Palca. Thanks so much.

PALCA: Scott, it's been my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.