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.

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All Tech Considered
5:13 am
Thu August 20, 2015

A Lot Of Heat Is Wasted, So Why Not Convert It Into Power?

A thermoelectric PowerCard like this one can be used to convert waste heat into an electric power source, Alphabet Energy says.
Alphabet Energy

Originally published on Thu August 20, 2015 12:27 pm

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.

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Science
4:29 pm
Tue August 18, 2015

Scientists Develop App To Turn Smartphones Into Cosmic Ray Detectors

Originally published on Thu August 20, 2015 4:20 pm

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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All Tech Considered
4:04 pm
Fri August 7, 2015

Shall I Compare Thee To An Algorithm? Turing Test Gets A Creative Twist

Originally published on Mon August 10, 2015 1:05 pm

A machine with superhuman intelligence is a staple of science fiction. But what about a machine with just ordinary human intelligence? A machine that's so humanlike in its behavior that you can't tell if it's a computer acting like a human, or a real human?

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Shots - Health News
3:30 pm
Mon August 3, 2015

Snail Venom Yields Potent Painkiller, But Delivering The Drug Is Tricky

The sea snail Conus magus looks harmless enough, but it packs a venomous punch that lets it paralyze and eat fish. A peptide modeled on the venom is a powerful painkiller, though sneaking it past the blood-brain barrier has proved hard.
Courtesy of Jeanette Johnson and Scott Johnson

Originally published on Tue August 4, 2015 10:52 am

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.

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Shots - Health News
5:11 am
Mon August 3, 2015

How A Scientist's Slick Discovery Helped Save Preemies' Lives

Researcher John Clements in the early 1980s, after he figured out that lungs need surfactants to breathe.
David Powers/Courtesy of UCSF

Originally published on Mon August 3, 2015 9:05 pm

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.

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The Two-Way
5:02 am
Thu July 16, 2015

'Buckyballs' Solve Century-Old Mystery About Interstellar Space

Harry Kroto, pictured in 1996, displays a model of the geodesic-shaped carbon molecules that he helped discover.
Michael Scates AP

Originally published on Thu July 16, 2015 11:03 am

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.

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Goats and Soda
5:01 pm
Wed July 15, 2015

Progress In The Fight Against A Parasite That Causes Diarrheal Disease

The Cryptsporidium parasite emerges from the oocyst ready to infect.
Muthgapatti Kandasamy & Boris Striepen Courtesy of University of Georgia

Originally published on Thu July 16, 2015 2:50 pm

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.

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All Tech Considered
3:31 pm
Tue June 30, 2015

Flood Maps Can Get Much Sharper With A Little Supercomputing Oomph

This is a calculated flood map for the city of St. Louis. Water depth goes from deep (dark blue) to shallow (white, light blue). Floodwater can come from the Illinois, Upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers, as well as from heavy local precipitation.
Courtesy of Dag Lohmann/Katrisk

Originally published on Wed July 1, 2015 12:42 am

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.

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Research News
6:52 am
Fri June 12, 2015

Scientists Investigate What Makes Us Itch

Originally published on Fri June 12, 2015 12:23 pm

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Scientists have just scratched the surface of another important problem - why some things make us itch. Today, there's progress to report. Researchers in California have found a molecule that may be crucial for our brains to sense itch. NPR's Joe Palca has more.

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Goats and Soda
3:32 am
Mon June 1, 2015

How A Drunken Chipmunk Voice Helps Send A Public Service Message

Illlustration by Hanna Barczyk

Originally published on Tue June 2, 2015 9:54 am

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.

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Joe's Big Idea
5:31 am
Sat May 16, 2015

'Playing Around With Telescopes' To Explore Secrets Of The Universe

The 200-inch Hale Telescope, a masterpiece of engineering at Caltech's Palomar Observatory, was the world's largest telescope until 1993.
Scott Kardel/Palomar Observatory Courtesy of Palomar Observatory/California Institute of Technology

Originally published on Mon May 18, 2015 12:26 pm

Shrinivas Kulkarni, an astronomy and planetary science professor at the California Institute of Technology, is a serious astronomer. But not too serious.

"We astronomers are supposed to say, 'We wonder about the stars and we really want to think about it,' " says Kulkarni — in other words, think deep thoughts. But he says that's not really the way it is.

"Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call 'boys with toys,' " he says. "I really like playing around with telescopes. It's just not fashionable to admit it."

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The Two-Way
2:32 pm
Wed April 29, 2015

Welcome To The Neighborhood: 2 Super-Earths Discovered

An artist's rendition of the HD 7924 planetary system — just 54 light-years away from Earth — shows newly discovered exoplanets c and d, which join Planet b.
Karen Termaura, BJ Fulton UH IfA

Originally published on Thu April 30, 2015 8:53 am

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.

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Joe's Big Idea
8:07 am
Sat April 25, 2015

Hubble's Other Telescope And The Day It Rocked Our World

The Hooker 100-inch reflecting telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory, just outside Los Angeles. Edwin Hubble's chair, on an elevating platform, is visible at left. A view from this scope first told Hubble our galaxy isn't the only one.
Courtesy of The Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science Collection at the Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.

Originally published on Sat April 25, 2015 12:36 pm

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.

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Research News
6:04 am
Tue April 21, 2015

3-D Printers Are Changing The Way People Think About Manufacturing

Originally published on Wed April 22, 2015 9:52 am

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Shots - Health News
3:45 am
Wed April 8, 2015

Doctors Test Tumor Paint In People

Blaze Bioscience is commercially developing the "paint," which glows when exposed to near-infrared light.
Courtesy of Blaze Bioscience

Originally published on Wed April 8, 2015 5:52 pm

A promising technique for making brain tumors glow so they'll be easier for surgeons to remove is now being tested in cancer patients.

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Joe's Big Idea
2:34 pm
Mon March 30, 2015

Want To Do A Little Astrophysics? This App Detects Cosmic Rays

Smart phones contain a silicon chip inside the camera that might be used to detect rare, high energy particles from outer space.
J. Yang/Courtesy of WIPAC

Originally published on Tue March 31, 2015 11:40 am

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.

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Research News
7:47 am
Wed March 25, 2015

Safer Anthrax Test Aims To Keep The Bioweapon From Terrorists

Safe and small: The credit-card-sized test for anthrax destroys the deadly bacteria after the test completes.
Courtesy of Sandia Nation

Originally published on Thu April 2, 2015 3:48 pm

Engineers at Sandia National Laboratory have come up with what they think is a safer diagnostic test for anthrax bacteria — a test that would prevent the "bad guys" from getting their hands on this dangerous pathogen.

Sandia is home to the International Biological Threat Reduction Program. "Our interest is in safety and security of pathogens," says Melissa Finley. Finley isn't a bioweapons expert. She's a veterinarian.

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Science
5:00 pm
Thu March 19, 2015

Fossil Collection Calls Berkeley's Clock Tower Home

Originally published on Thu March 19, 2015 8:19 pm

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Joe's Big Idea
4:00 pm
Mon February 16, 2015

Climate Scientist Tries Arts To Stir Hearts Regarding Earth's Fate

Robert Davies (standing) and the quartet during a performance of "The Crossroads Project." Musicians include (left to right) Robert Waters, Rebecca McFaul, Anne Francis Bayless and Bradley Ottesen.
Andrew McCallister Courtesy of The Crossroads Project

Originally published on Tue February 17, 2015 12:45 pm

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Joe's Big Idea
5:49 pm
Fri February 6, 2015

Satellite Set To Stream Daily Images Of Earth From Space

NASA says this "blue marble" image is the most detailed true-color image of the entire Earth to date.
NASA

Originally published on Sat February 7, 2015 2:24 pm

There's something majestic, even awe-inspiring about the sight of planet Earth as a blue disc, hanging in the vastness of space.

The three astronauts aboard Apollo 8 were the first to get that view; if all goes well, later this year everyone will be able to get it on a daily basis over the Internet.

The images will come courtesy of a spacecraft called Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). It's a mission with an unusual history.

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Animals
4:41 pm
Mon January 26, 2015

On The Ant Highway, There's Never A Backup

Originally published on Mon January 26, 2015 7:45 pm

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.

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Joe's Big Idea
3:34 am
Mon January 19, 2015

Why Ants Handle Traffic Better Than You Do

Unless there's a serious pileup, ants in traffic tend to bypass a collision and just keep going. A physicist has found a way to model this behavior with a mathematical equation.
iStockphoto

Originally published on Wed June 24, 2015 10:52 am

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.

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The Two-Way
7:08 pm
Sun January 11, 2015

Ancient Scottish Sea Reptile Not 'Nessie,' But Just As Cute

An artist's rendering of what Dearcmhara shawcrossi probably looked like in dinosaur times.
Todd Marshall/University of Edinburgh

Originally published on Tue January 13, 2015 1:21 pm

Scientists in Scotland have found a prehistoric behemoth: a previously unknown species of reptile that lived in the oceans during the time of dinosaurs. And before you ask, no, scientists do not believe this new fossil has anything to do with the Loch Ness monster.

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Space
5:10 pm
Tue December 30, 2014

Scientists Bring The Sun Down To Earth To Learn How It Works

Originally published on Thu February 5, 2015 1:13 am

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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Research News
6:39 am
Fri December 26, 2014

Do Fish Have Fingers?

Originally published on Mon December 29, 2014 2:15 pm

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Joe's Big Idea
5:00 pm
Tue December 23, 2014

Could Glitter Help Solve NASA's Giant Telescope Problem?

Larkin Carey, an optical engineer with Ball Aerospace, examines two test mirror segments designed for the James Webb Space Telescope. The mirror for the scope is extremely powerful, but heavy and pricey.
NASA

Originally published on Thu February 5, 2015 1:16 am

NASA is building a new space telescope with astounding capabilities. The James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018, will replace the aging Hubble Space Telescope and will provide unprecedented views of the first galaxies to form in the early universe. It might even offer the first clear glimpse of an Earth-like planet orbiting a distant star.

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Space
4:31 pm
Tue December 16, 2014

Methane Bursts On Mars Could Hint At Previous Life

Originally published on Fri December 19, 2014 1:07 pm

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Something intriguing is happening on Mars. Instruments onboard the rover known as Curiosity are seeing bursts of methane entering the Martian atmosphere and then disappearing. NPR's Joe Palca reports.

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Research News
5:01 am
Mon December 15, 2014

Why Some Scientific Collaborations Are More Beneficial Than Others

Originally published on Fri December 19, 2014 1:09 pm

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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The Two-Way
3:14 am
Thu December 4, 2014

To Search For A New Supernova, Build A New Camera

A blast from the past: Using data from four telescopes, NASA created this image of the first documented sighting of a supernova, made by Chinese astronomers in 185 A.D.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/B. Williams

Originally published on Thu December 11, 2014 2:03 pm

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.

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Shots - Health News
3:38 am
Mon November 24, 2014

Africa Inspires A Health Care Experiment In New York

Norma Melendez, a community health worker with City Health Works, walks along Second Avenue on her way to meet a client. City Health Works is an organization that is attempting to bring an African model of health care delivery to the United States.
Bryan Thomas for NPR

Originally published on Mon November 24, 2014 5:09 pm

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.

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