A Day in the Life of Joe Palca

Joe Palca is a science correspondent with NPR—in his words, “the same dead-end job he’s had for almost 23 years.” Before that he worked as a correspondent for Nature and Science. He also worked in television, but he’d prefer not to talk about that. He has a PhD in psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He rode RAGBRAI this year. Follow him on Twitter @joesbigidea.

Joe Palca

Joe Palca

What I’m working on:

My current project is called Joe’s Big Idea, in which I explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. That doesn’t leave out much. It’s basically whatever story I get interested in, and my interests tend to be eclectic. I recently did a story about the solution to a century-old astronomical mystery (the buckyball did it) and another one on the development of a genetic toolkit for studying the protozoan parasite Cryptosporidium parvum. This week it’s a story about an entrepreneur who wants to make a fortune turning waste heat into electricity.

The “big idea” is to stop trying to pretend that science is news in the same way politics or crime or sports are news. It’s easy to say what will make news in crime or sports. But science is different. Deciding what’s important enough to report on is tricky. So is the timing. When does a finding become news? When the scientist makes the discovery? Submits the paper? Presents the work at a scientific meeting? It’s crazy to me that we call it news the day it’s published, a totally artificial “news peg” made more peg-like by embargo rules that guarantee all coverage occurs at the same time.

The other problem with reporting only important science news is I don’t really know what’s important. Oh sure, New Horizons flying by Pluto is big science news. But most other stuff may or may not turn out to be important. You have to wait a few years. And no self-respecting news editor likes a five-year-old story. So we roll the dice and pretend a story is important because it appears in an important journal. But in reality, who knows?

Lately I’ve been trying to do a better job with my social media presence, with a particular aim of engaging a younger audience.

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Joe and his caribou friends in Fairbanks, Alaska, working on a story about why humans are different than musk ox. Photo by NPR producer Jane Greenhalgh.

Where I work:

I work in a cubicle near a window. I like being near the window. The window faces west. North Capitol Street is right below the window. I can see no Washington landmarks from where I sit. My desk is very white. Two of the walls of my cube are white, and one is grey. There is no fourth wall. I have a bookshelf, but I don’t see it very often because it’s behind me.

Daily routine:

I usually leave my house in northwest Washington around 7:00 a.m. and ride my bike to work. I do this all year round, unless there is snow or ice on the ground. The new NPR HQ has showers, so I am much more popular at work now. I’m usually at my desk at eightish. I leave around 5:00. I am an hourly employee, so if I work later than 5:00 I’m supposed to get overtime, and NPR generally prefers not to pay overtime, so I leave at 5:00 most days.

Most productive part of my day:

I’d say I’m most productive from 8:00 until about 8:30.

Most essential ritual or habit:

I eat lunch at noon on the dot. The National Institute of Standards and Technology has a webcam pointed at our lunch table, and they reset their atomic clock each day based on when I sit down to eat.

Mobile device:

NPR gives me an iPhone.

Computer:

An underpowered Dell laptop with two Dell monitors.

Essential software/apps/productivity tools:

I don’t have much choice. NPR provides us with a bunch of clunky software that we must use for writing, editing, audio editing, and web production. Luckily, I don’t think any of this software is available to the public. I use the usual suite of social media platforms.

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Joe biking in RAGBRAI.

Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:

I wander around the building. There are a ton of interesting people here to talk to. And sometimes people set out tasty snacks. When I’m not at work a game of Spider solitaire does the trick.

My reading habits:

I like to read the newspaper in bed on my iPad. I read some paper magazines (Science, Science News, The New Yorker). I read science books when I have to judge them for a prize, but otherwise I don’t read science books very often. Alas, I don’t read books very often anymore. I am reading James Joyce’s Ulysses very slowly on my iPad when I fly on airplanes.

Sleep schedule:

Early to bed and early to rise.

 

 

Photos courtesy of Joe Palca except where otherwise noted.

 

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