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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpBsFzjyRO8 Is there ever a time when cool trumps science? It's a question that becomes relevant when you consider NASA's plans to put a helicopter drone on an upcoming rover mission to Mars. Think about it. If you tell a friend that NASA's Mars 2020 mission will have an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer on board for determining the fine scale elemental composition of Martian surface materials, you'll probably be greeted with a blank look. Tell that friend the...

This is the time of year that ancient Greeks gave thanks to the goddess Ceres for bringing forth a bountiful harvest. Modern planetary scientists give thanks to a different Ceres — not a goddess, but the largest object in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. Studying Ceres should help researchers gain a better understanding of how our solar system formed, and they'll soon have unique new data about Ceres from a NASA spacecraft called Dawn, which is spending this Thanksgiving heading for its...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmWjaOYk5g0 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rk2IqhwOPSI http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXEM4jb690M Babies learn how to identify and pick up objects in their world through trial and error. Now a computer scientist is trying the same approach with robots. Robots have been around for decades, so you'd think by now they'd be able to do some useful things, such as put away the groceries or unload the dishwasher. It turns out these tasks are devilishly hard for robots....

The Nobel Prize has a special aura. Winning one instantly certifies you as someone who has reached the pinnacle of science. But what does it take to win the prize? And what does it do to your life? There are different answers for every scientist, of course. But for Nobel laureate and chemist Harold "Harry" Kroto , some of the answers might surprise you. "I've always felt that the Nobel Prize gives me nothing as far as science is concerned," Kroto told me when I visited him earlier this year...

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/. Transcript RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST: And another Nobel Prize was awarded this morning. (SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry jointly to Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar for mechanistic studies of DNA repair. MONTAGNE: And joining us to explain what DNA repair is all about is NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. And while...

Mothers have been warned for years that sleeping with their newborn infant is a bad idea because it increases the risk the baby might die unexpectedly during the night. But now Israeli researchers are reporting that even sleeping in the same room can have negative consequences: not for the child, but for the mother. Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev wanted to see whether sleeping in the same room as their newborn affected mothers' or babies' sleep. The short answer: It did,...

Mars is basically a pretty arid place, so it's pretty astonishing that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was able to spot signs of liquid water on the planet's surface. But even more astonishing in a way is that one of the places where signs of water was spotted is a mere 50 kilometers from where NASA's Curiosity rover has been exploring. After all, Mars is a pretty big planet, and signs of water have been spotted in only a handful of places. So why not just have the rover drive over and take...

The average American commuter spends 42 hours per year stuck in rush-hour traffic, according to one recent study . More than four decades ago, West Virginia University thought it had found a solution to urban traffic woes: It built a transportation system known as personal rapid transit , or PRT. Instead of riding with dozens of others on a train car or bus, PRT pods carry a small number of people. And instead of making stops, PRT takes you directly to your destination, nonstop. To its...

What if there were a way to take the waste heat that spews from car tailpipes or power plant chimneys and turn it into electricity? Matt Scullin thinks there is, and he's formed a company to turn that idea into a reality. The key to Scullin's plans is something called thermoelectrics. "A thermoelectric is a material that turns heat into electricity," he says. Never heard of thermoelectrics? Don't feel bad. They tend to have rather esoteric uses. For example, NASA uses them to turn heat into...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjHMGSI_h0Q Researchers are increasingly turning to nature for inspiration for new drugs. One example is Prialt . It's an incredibly powerful painkiller that people sometimes use when morphine no longer works. Prialt is based on a component in the venom of a marine snail. Prialt hasn't become a widely used drug because it's hard to administer. Mandë Holford is hoping to change that. She and colleagues explain how in their study published online Monday in the...

In 1953, Dr. John Clements realized something fundamental about the way the lung functions — an insight that would ultimately save the lives of millions of premature babies. The story begins in 1950, when the U.S. Army sent Clements, a newly graduated physician, to the medical division of what was then called the Army Chemical Center in Edgewood, Md. Clements was interested in doing research in biochemistry. His commanding officer was of a different mind. " 'We don't need any biochemists,' "...

Researchers in Switzerland say they've solved a nearly 100-year-old astronomical mystery by discovering what's in the wispy cloud of gas that floats in the space between the stars. Astronomers have known since 1922 that there was some invisible substance in between the stars. That's the year a young astronomy graduate student named Mary Lea Heger (who later became Mary Lea Shane ) reported that something was absorbing specific frequencies of light coming from distant stars. Figuring out what...

Scientists are reporting progress in the fight against a parasite that's a major cause of diarrheal disease in the developing world. To make progress against any microbial disease, scientists usually try to find ways to tinker with the microbe's genes, looking for weak spots that could be exploited with drugs. But tinkering with the genes of Cryptosporidium parvum has been difficult, if not completely impossible. No one has been able to figure out how to apply the standard tools of molecular...

A small company in California is hoping to make a big splash by providing detailed flood maps to homeowners and insurance companies. And to do that, the company is using one of the fastest supercomputers in the world. The company is called Katrisk , based in Berkeley, Calif. Hydrologist and computer modeler Dag Lohmann is one of the company's founders. He says the flood maps the Federal Emergency Management Agency already produces will tell you how prone a particular area is to flooding. But...

You get a voicemail message from a friend. Her voice sounds a little ... weird. Like a chipmunk who had too much to drink. After her message, you're told you can push a button on the phone and hear another kind of message: say, job listings in your neighborhood or tips on how to stop the spread of Ebola. That's how a new game called Polly works. It was designed by computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University to help get useful information to people with little or no reading skills. Polly...

Using telescopes in Hawaii and California, astronomers have found two super-Earth-size planets orbiting a star a mere 54 light-years away. This brings to three the total number of exoplanets around the star HD 7924. The discovery is important for two reasons. NASA's Kepler telescope has shown that giant rocky planets orbiting close to their stars are fairly common for distant stars. The new finding confirms that such planets exist around local stars, as well. It also confirms the value of the...

The Hubble Space Telescope this week celebrates 25 years in Earth's orbit. In that time the telescope has studied distant galaxies, star nurseries, planets in our solar system and planets orbiting other stars. But, even with all that, you could argue that the astronomer for whom the telescope is named made even more important discoveries — with far less sophisticated equipment. In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble was working with the 100-inch Hooker telescope on Mount Wilson, just outside Los Angeles....

A promi s ing technique for making brain tumors glow so they'll be easier for surgeons to remove is now being tested in cancer patients. Eighteen months ago, Shots first told readers about tumor paint , an experimental substance derived from scorpion venom. Inject tumor paint into a patient's vein, and it will actually cross the blood-brain barrier and find its way to a brain tumor. Shine near-infrared light on a tumor coated with tumor paint, and the tumor will glow. The main...

Scientists in California are hoping to use your smart phone to solve a cosmic mystery. They're developing an app to turn your phone into a cosmic ray detector. If enough people install the app, the scientists think they'll be able to figure out once and for all what's producing the very energetic cosmic rays that occasionally hit the Earth. The project is the brainchild of physicists Daniel Whiteson at the University of California, Irvine, and his buddy Michael Mulhearn at the University of...

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/. Transcript DAVID GREENE, HOST: We typically think of evolution as a process that occurs over millions, or even hundreds of millions, of years. But some evolutionary changes happen much faster than that. Scientists in California are seeing that as they study a rapidly reproducing organism. NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca says their work could have implications for human cancer. JOE PALCA, BYLINE: When Gavin Sherlock was growing...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5kml7Fb17o A decade ago, physicist Robert Davies wasn't all that interested in Earth's climate. His field was quantum optics. But while he was working at the University of Oxford in England, he became intrigued by what was going on at Oxford's Environmental Change Institute , just down the road from his lab. Davies started going to seminars at the Institute, and was taken aback, he says, by "the broad gap between what science understands about climate change,...

A team of Indian physicists has made a mathematical model that purports to explain why ants don't have traffic jams. NPR's Joe Palca explains as part of his series, Joe's Big Idea. This story originally aired on Morning Edition on January 19, 2015. Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/. Transcript ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST: Traffic is a fact of modern life. Cars, plus more cars, plus trucks and there you are creeping along wondering why you're not...

Could studying ants reveal clues to reducing highway traffic jams? Physicist Apoorva Nagar at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology thinks the answer is yes. Nagar says he got interested in the topic when he came across a study by German and Indian researchers showing that ants running along a path were able to maintain a steady speed even when there were a large number of ants on the path. Nagar says there are three main reasons ants don't jam up. No. 1, ants don't have egos....

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/. Transcript RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST: Science is all about collaborations. But there is new evidence that some collaborations may be more beneficial than others. Turns out when scientists collaborate internationally, they are more likely to have an impact on science than purely domestic collaborations. And the new evidence itself comes from an interesting and unexpected collaboration, as NPR's Joe Palca discovered when he dug into the...

The search for the massive star explosions called supernovae is about to get a big boost. Astronomers at Caltech in Pasadena are building a new camera that will let them survey the entire night sky in three nights. The problem with looking for supernovae is you can't really be sure when and where to look for them. Most telescope cameras can only capture a small patch of sky at a time. But the new camera, to be mounted on a telescope at the Palomar Observatory , has a much larger field of view...

There's a project in the neighborhood of Harlem in New York that has a through-the-looking-glass quality. An organization called City Health Works is trying to bring an African model of health care delivery to the United States. Usually it works the other way around. If City Health Works' approach is successful, it could help change the way chronic diseases are managed in poverty-stricken communities, where people suffer disproportionately from HIV/AIDS, obesity and diabetes. One of the...

People who grow tomatoes want varieties that produce as much saleable crop as possible. People who eat tomatoes are less interested in yield, and more in taste. The tension between taste and yield can get pretty intense. What's a poor tomato plant to do? Enter Zach Lippman , a plant geneticist from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. "Our interest is in how we can boost productivity, yield, fruit production, without compromising any of the fruit quality traits such as size and flavor,"...

There's now free software for your iPhone that lets you check for early signs of certain eye diseases. The idea for the app comes from a Baylor University chemist named Bryan Shaw . We introduced you to Shaw late last year. Shaw's son Noah was born with a rare form of eye cancer known as retinoblastoma . Shaw saw signs of his son's cancer when the baby was just 12 days old; there was a white reflection coming from Noah's eyes in flash pictures taken with the family's digital camera. The flash...

Whether they admit it or not, many (if not most) scientists secretly hope to get a call in October informing them they've won a Nobel Prize. But I've talked to a lot of Nobel laureates, and they are unanimous on one point: None of them pursued a research topic with the intention of winning the prize. That's certainly true for Jennifer Doudna . She hasn't won a Nobel Prize, but many are whispering that she's in line to win one for her work on something called CRISPR/Cas9 — a tool for editing...

A carnivorous plant has inspired an invention that may turn out to be a medical lifesaver. Nepenthes, also known as tropical pitcher plants or monkey cups, produce a superslippery surface that causes unfortunate insects that climb into the plant to slide to their doom. Scientists at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering wondered if they could find a way to mimic that surface to solve a problem in medicine. The medical problem is blood clots. Whenever blood flows over...

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