Source: The Daily Beacon | Heidi Hill | March 26, 2015
“Good stories are about people.” Though NPR science correspondent Joe Palca did not break down the fundamental physics that knit a galaxy together, his lecture “Explaining the Universe in Two Minutes Or Less” focused on creating stories about science into understandable bites — pieces digestible for an audience with “the attention span of a gnat.”
“Ninety-nine percent of (the story) is what I have to leave out,” Palca said of his approach to his acclaimed two minute science stories on NPR. “Even after 23 years, every time I write something, I worry I didn’t capture it right.”
To demonstrate his task of prying critical information from complex research and concepts, Palca played sound bites from four pieces of science journalism, highlighting features on the Kepler Space Telescope, synthetic cells, potential evidence for life on Mars and a dizzying construct of time known as the “leap second.”
Palca also noted the nature of science journalism as problematic for a traditional news format, and argued that only a journalist’s understanding of the subject at hand is needed when drafting and telling these succinct stories.
“If I understand it, I can communicate it,” Palca said. “I’m trying to lighten the load on the scientist. Why not let me come up the tricks of explaining it while they continue their work? I know they are generally considered bad communicators, but all I ask from scientists is that they talk because (science writers) spend our lives thinking of good ways to explain stuff. The only critical thing is that we understand it, so that we don’t screw it up when we explain it.”
This fissure of communication between the public and science community is one aspect that Ben Moore, graduate student in energy science and engineering and lecture attendee, knows all too well.
“I used to work in organic chemistry, and that’s a field riddled with jargon, so people just don’t understand what you’re talking about,” Moore said. “And even day to day, just trying to explain what I’m doing, even to my girlfriend, is difficult because you’re using words most people have never heard of.”
As an employee under the Department of Energy, Moore said science communication is important to keep the public informed of scientific endeavors for continual funding.
“It’s the public that’s paying for you to have the job,” Moore said. “If they don’t understand what you’re doing, they won’t want to give you money, so you can’t keep working. So you have to let people know what you’re doing.”
For Kevin Brown, senior in public relations, Palca’s succinct storytelling framed a more efficient way of writing that he plans to incorporate into his professional life.
“I really ended up enjoying (the lecture) because I grew up listening to NPR with my mom, so it was really funny because I didn’t make the connection to Joe Palca until I got here,” Brown said. ” I definitely learned a lot about what I should put into my own writing and what should I think is important and not important.”
For Palca, one of the most powerful stories emerged from an interview with the creator of “tumor paint,” a biological marker that can better detect brain tumors in children and assist surgeons in removing the malignant growths.
“He was so powerful in his description of his work and what he does and so moving in the way he describes his work with the parents,” Palca said. “It’s just heartbreaking and beautiful and it was about a person, but it feels like a little of a cheat because it’s a much more emotional topic than methane on Mars. But you know no one’s gonna cry at a methane on Mars story.”
While Palca’s short and sweet method when approaching science journalism has earned him national acclaim, he explained that he cannot inject powerful emotion into every story he reports on.
“If I were really good, I could take that same kick in the gut kind of reporting and talk about astronomy, but I don’t think you can,” Palca said. “I think you have to make it about people and what they do and their passions.
“It’s better than just talking about the science.”