RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
For the past year or so, NPR's Joe Palca has been on a new beat. He's calling it Joe's Big Idea. And it's been a chance for him to explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors, to find out what really makes them tick. We thought it might be a good time to check in with Joe and see what big ideas he has encountered along his journey. Hey Joe, thanks for being with us.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Oh, it's great to be here.
MARTIN: So, big question right out of the gate. What is the most important thing you have learned so far?
PALCA: Well, it was really something I knew 'cause I trained as a scientist once upon a time, and so it just is natural to me. But scientists are people, you know?
PALCA: They're not these automatons that you see in the movies, like Mr. Spock, who give you the facts - just the facts. And the best example of that is this guy Adam Steltzner. He designed the landing system for the Mars Rover that landed on Mars last year. So he's a topnotch engineer but not exactly what you might think of as an engineer.
ADAM STELTZNER: So I was sort of studying sex, drugs and rock and roll in high school.
PALCA: Not exactly a pocket-protector kid with, you know, pens and slide rules and stuff.
STELTZNER: No. I had sort of shoulder-length hair, liked to wear this strange Air Force jumpsuit. And my first car was a '69 Cadillac hearse. And I put a bed in the back of it.
MARTIN: Sounds like a character.
MARTIN: What about their motivations, of these scientists, inventors? These are clearly people who love what they do.
PALCA: Yeah, absolutely. And that's the other thing that I again, I know but I really need to show it to people. And that's why I have been looking for people that best represent that. And one of them is this guy Jonathan Wilker. He's an inorganic chemist, and he studies the glue that oysters and mussels and other shellfish make that allow them to stick onto rocks.
So here he is in the middle of Indiana, at Purdue University, and he's got a lab full of shellfish. And he's trying to make a synthetic version of the glue that they make.
JONATHAN WILKER: I'm very excited about this. Under certain conditions, our synthetic version of the mussel adhesive is actually stronger than superglue. Actually...
PALCA: So, Wilker takes me over to a drawer and he's got these glues in them that he's bought at the hardware store, and he shows me the machine he uses to pry things apart that he's glued together. And he's just bursting with enthusiasm.
MARTIN: And you talked to so many people for this project over the course of the past year. But I wonder if there is one person, one character, who has stuck in your mind in a different kind of way?
PALCA: I think it has to be this guy Jim Olson. He's an oncologist, researcher, clinician. And he's a guy who can reframe a question and see things from a different point of view. And what really hit home about that was when he was telling me the story about how a child deals with brain cancer.
DR. JIM OLSON: A child who is going to die from their cancer isn't mourning the high school prom that they're not going to get to go to. They're not mourning the fact that they won't drive their first car. For a child, it's about are they happy? Are their parents happy? Is a cute dog going to come in and visit them at 2 o'clock in the afternoon? It's all about that moment, that day.
PALCA: And I've worked in radio now for more than 20 years, and this next piece of tape is the most compelling thing I've ever heard. And it was a time when Olson was describing to me how he had just had to tell some parents that their child was going to die. And this is what he said to me about them.
OLSON: Their response to that was remarkable. I went up to see how they were doing, about 20 minutes later, and Hayden was laying in his bed, and his parents were on the other side of the curtain that separated his bed from the rest of the ICU. And they were saying, see, this is just like when you're going to be dead. I'm still here, you're still there, we just can't see each other. Then they would open up the drapes, see, I'm still here, you're still there. That's what it's going to be like after you die. And I've never seen a family do such a beautiful parenting move in my life.
MARTIN: It's quite a piece of tape.
PALCA: I hear it and each time, it chokes me up.
MARTIN: A remarkable man doing important work.
PALCA: Absolutely. And able to articulate it, which is rare.
MARTIN: Yeah. So, what's next for you?
PALCA: Well, one of the things you may have noticed in the tape I've played today is I don't have a lot of women. I didn't have any today.
MARTIN: I did notice.
PALCA: I think that's a problem. And when we do this next year, it's going to be different.
MARTIN: NPR's Joe Palca. Thanks so much, Joe.
PALCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.