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. 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 began his journalism career in television in 1982, working as a health producer for the CBS affiliate in Washington, DC. In 1986, he left television for a seven-year stint as a print journalist, first as the Washington news editor for Nature, and then as a senior correspondent forScience Magazine.

In October 2009, Palca took a six-month leave from NPR to become science writer in residence at the Huntington Library and The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Palca has won numerous awards, including the National Academies Communications Award, the Science-in-Society Award of the National Association of Science Writers, the American Chemical Society James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public, the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Prize, and the Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Writing.

With Flora Lichtman, Palca is the co-author of Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us (Wiley, 2011).

He comes to journalism from a science background, having received a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California at Santa Cruz where he worked on human sleep physiology.

Scientists in Ireland are using a rather unexpected material to make an extremely sensitive pressure detector: Silly Putty. The Irish researchers combined the kids' plaything with a special form of carbon, and came up with a remarkable new material — one they think could someday be useful in making medical devices. Physicist Jonathan Coleman , at Trinity College, Dublin, says Silly Putty has some extraordinary properties. If you roll the stuff into a tight ball and throw it on the ground, it...

The next generation of great space telescopes is heading into its final round of ground tests. The nearly $9 billion James Webb Space Telescope will replace the aging Hubble Space Telescope . It's designed to provide unprecedented images of the earliest stars and galaxies that formed in the universe. But before the telescope can get to work, there are still a lot of engineering challenges to overcome. For example, the Webb telescope is designed to look at the infrared wavelengths of light...

Scientists in Michigan have found a new dwarf planet in our solar system. It's about 330 miles across and some 8.5 billion miles from the sun. It takes 1,100 years to complete one orbit. But one of the most interesting things about the new object, known for the time being as 2014 UZ224, is the way astronomers found it. David Gerdes of the University of Michigan led the team that found the new dwarf planet. Gerdes describes himself as "an adult-onset astronomer," having started his scientific...

Most of us have been tempted at one time or another by the lure of sugar. Think of all the cakes and cookies you consume between Thanksgiving and Christmastime! But why are some people unable to resist that second cupcake or slice of pie? That's the question driving the research of Monica Dus , a molecular biologist at the University of Michigan. She wants to understand how excess sugar leads to obesity by understanding the effect of sugar on the brain. Dus's interest in how animals control...

This is a story about a revolution that never happened. In 1975, a novel transportation system called Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT for short, started operating in Morgantown , West Va. It was supposed to usher in a new age of public transit. It didn't. But West Virginia University, which operates the PRT system , remains committed to it — and is spending more than $100 million to refurbish the aging system. PRT is very different from conventional mass transit. Normally, when you get on a...

NASA's next Mars rover mission doesn't launch until 2020, but the process of picking a landing site is already underway. Right now, one of the leading suggestions comes from a teenager who hasn't yet finished high school. Alex Longo , of Raleigh, N.C., has been a fan of space exploration for almost as long as he can remember. "My first experience with space exploration was in 2005," he says. "I was just 5 years old, and mom and dad had me watch a space shuttle launch ." Watching that shuttle...

NASA has released the first close-up images ever taken of Jupiter's north pole. They were photographed by the Juno spacecraft now in orbit around the gas giant. The north pole looks totally different from the rest of the planet. "It's bluer in color up there than other parts of the planet, and there are a lot of storms," Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute, says in a NASA statement on Friday. "This image is hardly recognizable as Jupiter," he...

Astronomers think they've discovered a new planet in our solar system. Now all they have to do is find it. Nobody's actually seen the new planet. The reason astronomers think it's out there is the strange behavior of some smallish objects in the Kuiper Belt , a collection of celestial objects orbiting in the outer reaches of the solar system. "The seven most distant of these objects, when they go really far away, they all go in the same direction," says Mike Brown , professor of planetary...

Three college-age scientists think they know how to solve a huge problem facing medicine. They think they've found a way to overcome antibiotic resistance. Many of the most powerful antibiotics have lost their efficacy against dangerous bacteria, so finding new antibiotics is a priority. It's too soon to say for sure if the young researchers are right, but if gumption and enthusiasm count for anything, they stand a fighting chance. I met Zach Rosenthal, Christian Choe and Maria Filsinger...

This summer, NPR's science desk is thinking about waves, of all kinds — ocean, gravitational, even stadium waves. But what is a wave, anyway? My editor asked me to puzzle that one out. And, to be honest, I was puzzled. Is a wave a thing? Or is it the description of a thing? Or is it a mathematical formula that produces a curve that gives you the description of a thing? Rather than pester a scientist with my somewhat philosophical questions, I decided to pester a philosopher. Marc Cohen is...

NASA has released the first picture of Jupiter taken since the Juno spacecraft went into orbit around the planet on July 4. The picture was taken on July 10. Juno was 2.7 million miles from Jupiter at the time. The color image shows some of the atmospheric features of the planet, including the giant red spot. You can also see three of Jupiter's moons in the picture: Io, Europa and Ganymede. JunoCam is the only color camera on the mission. Strictly speaking, it's not part of the spacecraft's...

After a five-year journey through the solar system, NASA's $1.1 billion Juno mission is set to begin its orbit around Jupiter on Monday. But for the probe to be captured by the giant planet's gravity and go into the desired orbit, Juno's main engine has to fire for 35 minutes. "We've only got one shot," says Guy Beutelschies, director of space exploration systems at Lockheed Martin, the company that built and operates Juno . "If we miss this flyby, we're assuming the mission's over." That...

In 1975, I was living in San Diego and needed a job. The roommate of a friend of mine was a scientist at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation. He said a colleague of his was looking to hire a lab technician, so I applied and got the job. The scientist I worked for was some guy from a small town in Texas. His name? Jim Allison. Jim has invented a new kind of cancer therapy that enables patients' own immune systems to fight off their disease. He's won all kinds of awards for his work, and...

Since 2014, the U.S. Army has gradually been deploying the latest version of a hearing protection system that protects users from loud noises while still letting them hear the world around them. The system is called TCAPS , or Tactical Communication and Protective System, and about 20,000 of the new TCAPS devices have been deployed in the field so far. Hearing loss is a big problem in the military. A spokeswoman for the Defense Department Hearing Center of Excellence wrote in an email that 1...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VopaBsuwikk NASA called off today's effort to inflate an expandable module attached to the International Space Station after its first attempt fell flat. The module is called BEAM, Bigelow Expandable Activity Module . It's a prototype of what could be a new kind of living quarters in space. The advantage of an expandable module is that it can be folded so it takes up less room in a cargo rocket, and then expanded once it reaches space. Folded up, BEAM looks like...

Sir Harold Walter Kroto died on April 30, and I've been thinking a lot about him ever since. Harry, as he preferred to called, was one of the most remarkable people I've ever known. We met in 2013 when I was moderating a panel of Nobel laureates at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix. He was obviously smart, having co-discovered new forms of carbon called buckminsterfullerenes — or buckyballs — and sharing a Nobel prize for that work in 1996. But he was also funny, wise,...

The old phrase "walking on eggshells" actually gives the honest egg a bad rap. Eggs are domes, and domes are among the strongest structures in the natural world. Joe Palca and intern Madeline Sofia demonstrate the strength of the egg in this video installment of " Joe's Big Idea ." Watch and marvel as the eggs withstand a gallon of water, bowling balls and ... Joe himself? Take a look to learn about what gives frail eggshells their strength! See more from Joe's Big Idea . Copyright 2016 NPR....

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfenfqtG5X4 Artificial limbs have come a long way since the days of peg legs and hooks for hands. But one thing most of these prosthetics lack is a sense of touch. Zhenan Bao intends to change that. Bao is a chemical engineer at Stanford University. Her long-term goal is to make an artificial skin out of plastic that can do most — if not all — of the things real skin can do. Skin is pretty remarkable stuff. It keeps dangerous bacteria and germs out and our...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfenfqtG5X4 Artificial limbs have come a long way since the days of peg legs and hooks for hands. But one thing most of these prosthetics lack is a sense of touch. Zhenan Bao intends to change that. Bao is a chemical engineer at Stanford University. Her long-term goal is to make an artificial skin out of plastic that can do most — if not all — of the things real skin can do. Skin is pretty remarkable stuff. It keeps dangerous bacteria and germs out and our...

A new era for living in space may be about to start. A prototype habitat is headed to the International Space Station for a two-year trial. What makes the module unique is it's launched folded up, and it's inflated to its full size once in orbit. The idea for inflatables began at NASA's Johnson Space Center in the 1990s. The space agency was trying to figure out how to get astronauts to Mars, without the crew going crazy living in a tiny capsule for months on end. Kriss Kennedy was a NASA...

On March 10, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee held a news conference at the Good Neighbor Healthcare Center in the part of Houston she represents. The mayor and a bevy of other state and local officials stood behind her. "What we're doing here today is having an intense briefing on the Zika virus with health professionals, working with the mayor and the city of Houston, the state and the country, to formulate the kind of partnership that can respond immediately," said Jackson Lee, a Democrat. Then she...

One of the most puzzling astronomical discoveries of the past decade has just gotten a little bit clearer. Astronomers still don't know what's producing the brief, powerful bursts of radio waves they've been detecting, but for the first time, they've been able to see where one of them is coming from. Astronomers first detected these so-called fast radio bursts in 2007. Until now, all 16 FRBs that have been reported have been found by combing through archival data. But Evan Keane , an...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e87P6sQVLc0 If this were a Sherlock Holmes story, its title would surely be "The Case of the Disappearing Quasar." In this case, however, the mystery wasn't solved by an aging Victorian-era detective, but by a young American astronomer at Penn State University named Jessie Runnoe and her colleagues. They study quasars, some of the brightest objects in the universe. Quasars aren't stars. "They're the result of gas and material falling into a supermassive black...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mk7DHn_DxUw Lithium-ion batteries are extremely popular because they are lightweight and pack a lot of power. But when they overheat, they can catch fire. This has been a problem in airplanes , cars and now the popular gift item, " hoverboards ." The Consumer Product Safety Commission says it's investigating 37 reports of fires associated with hoverboards. Stanford University chemical engineer Zhenan Bao says she and her colleagues think they have "a very simple...

What's the universe made of? It's a question that's been bothering scientists and philosophers for millennia, and has become even more vexing in recent decades, as physicists have become convinced that most of the universe is made of something we can't see or touch or measure. At least not yet. Richard Gaitskell hopes to change that. He's a physicist at Brown University, and the leader of a team that aims to be the first to describe this mysterious dark matter . So, if they can't see or touch...

Every once in a while a technology comes along that completely alters the way scientists do their work. It's hard to imagine astronomy without a telescope or high energy physics without an accelerator. From here on in, it's going to be impossible to imagine biology without CRISPR-Cas9. Simply put, CRISPR-Cas9 allows scientists to make specific changes to specific genes in living cells. Such a thing was possible in the past using technques called zinc finger nucleases and Talens . But those...

Austin Martin, a junior at Brown University, stands in front of an eighth-grade class at Community Preparatory School in Providence, R.I. He's here to test out the website he developed, which he hopes will help junior and senior high school students learn the vocabulary they'll need for their college entrance exams. He starts the class by connecting his laptop to a projector, and then he veers off the traditional path, away from rote memorization — and toward rap music. A short song clip...

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh have found a field of dinosaur footprints on the Isle of Skye. The footprints were made by giant dinosaurs 50 feet long that weighed nearly 20 tons. (This piece initially aired on Dec. 3, 2015, on All Things Considered .) Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/. Transcript SCOTT SIMON, HOST: Before tourists came to Scotland's Isle of Skye, there were dinosaurs - centuries earlier, to be sure. Researchers have uncovered fossilized...

Most people visit the Isle of Skye off the west coast of Scotland for the beautiful scenery or historic castles or maybe the Talisker Distillery. Not Stephen Brusatte . He goes to Skye for the dinosaurs. And he's pretty jazzed about what he and his team discovered on a recent field trip. "What we found is the biggest dinosaur site that's ever been found in Scotland," he says. Brusatte is a paleontologist from the University of Edinburgh. As he describes in a paper published today in the...

There's a building in Mountain View, Calif., where energy-saving technologies of the future are being tried on for size. Step inside, and the first thing you notice is the building is dead quiet: no noisy air whooshing through louvers. That's because the building uses passive cooling instead of traditional air conditioning. Cool ground water passes through a system of small tubes running below the ceiling. The electricity comes from solar panels on the roof and a fuel cell , an electricity...

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