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The Changes In Science And Technology Over The Last 4 Decades


All this week, we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of this very program. MORNING EDITION went on the air for the first time on November 5, 1979. In the four decades since, we have witnessed and covered a whole lot of change. Now we're going to turn to the world of science, technology and health. And who better to do that with than NPR science correspondent Joe Palca, who has seen - I don't know - probably all of it, right, Joe?

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Well, yep (laughter).

MARTIN: Good chunk of it.

PALCA: Pretty much all of it, yeah.

MARTIN: (Laughter) So it is safe to say, Joe, that in science and technology, I mean, the world is just - it feels like a totally different place in 40 years, doesn't it?

PALCA: It's astounding. And deciding what to talk about is - it's almost impossible. I mean, we're not going to talk about the space shuttle. We're not going to talk about going to Mars. We're not going to talk about planets around stars outside of our solar system...


PALCA: ...Or gravitational waves (laughter). So forget about all of that.

MARTIN: Because there's too much other stuff to talk about.

PALCA: But we thought we'd focus on things that affected people's lives. So we're going to start with this 1981 report by my predecessor, Laurie Garrett.


LAURIE GARRETT: In the last three months, 28 cases of Kaposi sarcoma have been reported in this country, all occurring among gay men, most of them young.

PALCA: Now, no one knew it at the time, but those cases were the first hint that we were heading into a new epidemic that became AIDS. And only a few years later, the virus that causes AIDS was identified.

MARTIN: I mean, we heard Laurie there talking about how this was something that was occurring among gay men. That's how most people thought of it, right?

PALCA: Right. And then this announcement in 1991.


EARVIN JOHNSON: Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today.

PALCA: That's Magic Johnson, you remember.


PALCA: And later in the news conference, he said something that was really remarkable.


JOHNSON: I plan on going on living for a long time, bugging you guys like I always have. So you'll see me around.

PALCA: Now, happily, Magic Johnson is still alive. And effective AIDS drugs were just becoming available then, so it was a little surprising at his announcement because a lot of people thought that it was a death sentence...

MARTIN: Right. Yeah.

PALCA: ...Or it could have been. And now, typically, AIDS is a manageable disease. And that takes us to another scientific advance. Just last year, we broadcast this story.



A Chinese researcher has shocked the world by claiming to have created the first genetically modified humans.


PALCA: Now, that researcher was trying to protect babies from getting AIDS, and to do that, he modified them when they were still embryos. And it's not clear the modification will work, but the work caused a huge controversy because many people think modifying human embryos is unethical. But the fact that you can modify an embryo for any purpose is the result of a tool called CRISPR.

MARTIN: Well, before you can modify genes effectively, you got to know what genes to modify, right?

PALCA: Exactly. And that's where this announcement comes in.


BILL CLINTON: We are here to celebrate the completion of the first survey of the entire human genome. Without a doubt, this is the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind.

PALCA: Of course, that's President Bill Clinton announcing the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2000. It was a project to map and sequence all our DNA. And while the genome project was still underway in 1997, there was another remarkable biological breakthrough.


BOB EDWARDS: Scientists in Scotland say they have cloned a sheep. This is the first time scientists have reported cloning an adult mammal, and the implications could be enormous.

MARTIN: This is Dolly, right?

PALCA: That's Dolly the sheep.

MARTIN: I remember Dolly. Although, I mean, we still haven't had any cloned humans.

PALCA: No, not yet and maybe not ever. But there's sure been a lot of talk about it.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PALCA: Now I want to shift gears and talk about another topic that's been on our air almost from the start with MORNING EDITION.


LILI FRANKLYN: In the past year, scientists have presented evidence that the polar ice caps are slowly melting, and some researchers feel that we'll see climate changes within the next decade.

PALCA: That was Lili Franklyn reporting in 1982. At the time, people called this the greenhouse effect...


PALCA: ...Why adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere would make the planet warm up. Since then, of course, climate change has become a political hot potato. Although, in 2008, there was this amazing TV commercial that suggested that there could be bipartisan agreement, even on this topic.


NANCY PELOSI: Hi, I'm Nancy Pelosi, lifelong Democrat and speaker of the House.

NEWT GINGRICH: And I'm Newt Gingrich, lifelong Republican, and I used to be speaker.

PELOSI: We don't always see eye to eye, do we, Newt?

GINGRICH: No, but we do agree our country must take action to address climate change.

MARTIN: Wow (laughter).

PALCA: Wow indeed. But by 2017, that consensus had pretty much broken down.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the nonbinding Paris accord.

PALCA: That, of course, was President Donald Trump. And the Paris accord is supposed to get countries to limit their greenhouse gas emissions.

MARTIN: All right. So, Joe, if I asked you to name the technological change that has most affected our lives when you look at the past 40 years, what change has really made a difference to everyday people in our everyday lives? How would you answer?

PALCA: Well, maybe like this.


PALCA: That was how we used to connect to the Internet in the early days.

MARTIN: I remember (laughter).

PALCA: And the Internet has completely changed society. I mean, remember - computers were something mainly used by enthusiasts and scientists and engineers. And then this announcement in 1981 signaled computers were going mainstream.


GEORGE CONRADES: Today I'm pleased to tell you that we're introducing the IBM Personal Computer, and we believe it will set a new standard for the industry.

PALCA: That's IBM's George Conrades speaking on an internal IBM video. And I think my favorite part of the video is when Conrades says the new PC comes with...


CONRADES: The option for color graphics and the new standard IBM keyboard with both upper- and lowercase letters.

MARTIN: Upper- and lowercase. Fancy. Whoa.

PALCA: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah. Well, you remember - teletype didn't give you that.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Amazing.

PALCA: And the other event that really kicked the Internet revolution into high gear for most people was this announcement in 2007.


STEVE JOBS: Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone, and we are calling it iPhone.

PALCA: The iPhone and its successors have changed everything about how most people interact with the world. In fact, Rachel, when MORNING EDITION went on the air, you had to be with a radio and near a broadcast tower, and now someone with a phone connected to the Internet could listen almost anywhere in the world. It's amazing. And so I really think that that is the big change.

MARTIN: So many changes to remember over 40 years of covering science and technology. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Thank you, Joe. We appreciate it.

PALCA: You bet.


DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Ch-ch-ch-ch (ph) changes Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca
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. From 2011 to 2020 he produced stories that explored the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors as part of his series, Joe's Big Idea. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.