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.

Trypophobia may be moving out of the urban dictionary and into the scientific literature.

A recent study in the peer-review journal Psychological Science takes a first crack at explaining why some people may suffer from a fear of holes.

Trypophobia may be hard to find in textbooks and diagnostic manuals, but a brief Web search will show that plenty of people appear to have it.

Late summer tends to be a slow month for news. But at All Things Considered, we put on a two hour program, no matter what. So — without a trace of irony — one of our science correspondents offered to help fill some holes in the show with a series of stories about holes. In this edition: Black holes.

Imagine winning the World Series, the lottery and a Nobel Prize all in one day. That's pretty much how scientists and engineers in mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., felt one year ago when the 1 ton, six-wheeled rover named Curiosity landed safely on Mars.

Within minutes, the rover began sending pictures back to Earth. In the past year it has sent back a mountain of data and pictures that scientists are sorting through, trying to get a better understanding of the early climate on Mars.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

A program such as ours is timed to the exact second, and occasionally, there are small holes when our mix of news and features doesn't quite fill up our two-hour slot.

So NPR's Joe Palca offered to come to our rescue with some short math and sciencey hole-filling stories, stories about what else - holes.

The big idea behind Joe's Big Idea is to report on interesting inventions and inventors. When I saw the headline "An Environmentally Friendly Battery Made From Wood," on a press release recently, I figured it fit the bill, so went to investigate.

It used to be that if astronomers wanted to get rid of the blurring effects of the atmosphere, they had to put their telescopes in space. But a technology called adaptive optics has changed all that.

Adaptive optics systems use computers to analyze the light coming from a star, and then compensate for changes wrought by the atmosphere, using mirrors that can change their shapes up to 1,000 times per second. The result: To anyone on Earth peering through the telescope, the star looks like the single point of light it really is.

Here's another reason to eat asparagus, in case you were looking for one.

In the news business, an evergreen is a story that doesn't have to run on a particular day, but can stay fresh for a long time.

This is an evergreen story about an evergreen. In particular, a group of plants called bryophytes. Turns out they may be evergreen quite a bit longer than most people thought.

Quite a few medical school students have something against obese people, and most of those who have such a bias are unaware of it.

That's the conclusion of study appearing in the July issue of Academic Medicine. It was conducted at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. The study's author says the subconscious judgments could affect how patients are treated.

Climate scientists have a good reason to want to get away from it all. To get an accurate picture of the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere, you have to find places where the numbers won't be distorted by cities or factories or even lots of vegetation that can have a major local impact on CO2 concentrations.

If you are up at 5 in the morning in Honolulu and are wondering what to do, I have a suggestion: Head over to Pier 38 and watch the Honolulu Fish Auction. It's quite a scene.

Getting up at 5 may seem a bit extreme, but for recent arrivals to Hawaii from the East Coast of the mainland — as I was last Friday — the six-hour time difference makes waking up early easy, if not inevitable.

Computers were created to be useful tools, but all too often it's still a chore to get technology to do our bidding.

Astronomers have found three planets orbiting far-off stars that are close to Earth-sized and in the "habitable zone": a distance from their suns that makes the planets' surfaces neither too hot nor too cold, but just right.

One of the three planets orbits a star with the prosaic name Kepler-69.

People can get pretty addicted to computer games. By some estimates, residents of planet Earth spend 3 billion hours per week playing them. Now some scientists are hoping to make use of all that human capital and harness it for a good cause.

Right now I'm at the novice level of a game called EyeWire, trying to color in a nerve cell in a cartoon drawing of a slice of tissue. EyeWire is designed to solve a real science problem — it aims to chart the billions of nerve connections in the brain.

Consider the following entirely fictitious but totally plausible scenario:

When the X-ray was invented, people clamored to get one. Not for any medical reason, but just to see what was typically hidden inside their bodies.

Something like that seems to be happening with DNA sequencing technology. First it was companies offering to sequence people's genomes. Now it's learning all about your microbiome, the collection of microorganisms living on and in your body.

When presented with a tempting buffet of French food, not overeating can be a challenge. But a new study by researchers in Lyon suggests there are strategies that will help people resist temptation.

People trying to keep off excess weight are frequently told that it's better to eat small amounts of food frequently during the day, rather than the typical breakfast, lunch and dinner. The idea is that more frequent eating will stave off hunger pangs that may lead to overeating.

The promise of genetic medicine is beginning to be fulfilled, but it's been a long, hard slog.

Take the story of Kalydeco. It's designed to treat people with a lung disease called cystic fibrosis. While not quite a cure, the drug is extremely effective for some CF patients.

But the success of Kalydeco has been more than two decades in the making.

There are some consumer products where every year brings new innovations. Computers get faster, cellphones get lighter, cars get new bells and whistles.

It's easy to imagine why inventors are drawn to redesigning these products — the technology for making them is changing all the time.

But what about consumer products that have been around for a long time? For the toothbrush, the answer is a resounding yes.

Mario Batali, watch your back.

Computer scientists at IBM have already built a computer that can beat human contestants on the TV quiz show, "Jeopardy." Now it appears they're sharpening their intellectual knives to make a computer that might someday challenge the competitors on "Iron Chef."

The folks at the California Institute of Technology have built another Mars rover, but this one will never get to leave Earth. Not surprising, really, since it's made of gingerbread.

NASA is finally receiving data on Martian soil samples from Curiosity, its rover currently traversing the red planet. The results from the soil samples hint at something exciting, but rover scientists are making very sure not to raise expectations.

The director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said last week that preliminary data showed the possibility that the agency's Mars Science Laboratory – the six-wheeled rover that landed on Mars in August — had found signs of carbon-containing molecules.

Mercury is not the first planet to come to mind if you were searching for ice in the solar system. After all, the surface temperature across most of the planet is hot enough to melt lead.

But at the poles on Mercury it's a different story. Almost no sun reaches the poles, and as a result, temperatures can drop to less than -100 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, three papers in the journal Science suggest there really is ice at the bottom of craters near the poles on Mercury.

Scientists working on NASA's six-wheeled rover on Mars have a problem. But it's a good problem.

They have some exciting new results from one of the rover's instruments. On the one hand, they'd like to tell everybody what they found, but on the other, they have to wait because they want to make sure their results are not just some fluke or error in their instrument.

Every time a storm brings flooding to a large metropolitan area, there are calls to improve the levee systems that are designed to prevent flooding.

But there's a major problem with doing that. "We don't know where all of our levees are," says Samantha Medlock with the Association of State Floodplain Managers.

Residents of Moonachie and Little Ferry, N.J., are beginning to clear the damage after their communities were inundated by floodwaters. The flooding occurred when a system of levees and berms was unable to control the storm surge pushed ashore by Superstorm Sandy.

Geologist Jeffrey Mount of the University of California, Davis, isn't surprised. "There really are only two kinds of levees," he says, "those that have failed, and those that will fail."

You'd think that someone who is a science correspondent and is as allergic to poison ivy as I am would have heard of urushiol, but no. I didn't recognize the word when I saw it a week or so ago. Now, thanks to my new beat (Joe's Big Idea), I'm allowed to dig a little deeper into stories, and what I learned about urushiol is pretty amazing.

A few hundred scientists gathered in the small French city of Nancy recently to present scientific papers related to a chemical reaction. Now that may seem a bit humdrum and hardly worth mentioning in The Salt, but in this case, it isn't.

For the past decade, scientists have been toying with the notion of encapsulating medicine in microscopic balls.

These so-called nanospheres could travel inside the body to hard-to-reach places, like the brain or the inside of a tumor. One problem researchers face is how to build these nanospheres, because you'd have to make them out of even smaller nanoparticles.

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