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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Research News
1:06 pm
Wed October 5, 2011

Researchers Advance Cloning Of Human Embryos

Nature

Researchers in New York are reporting an advance in creating cloned human embryos. The embryos would not be used for reproduction, but rather the creation of embryonic stem cells. Many scientists believe that human embryonic stem cells made this way could revolutionize medicine.

The advantage of stem cells made this way is that they could be personalized to an individual.

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Space
10:38 pm
Fri September 30, 2011

Flying Telescope Makes An Out-Of-This-World Find

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, known as SOFIA, is a modified Boeing 747 airplane that houses a NASA telescope.
Melissa Forsyth NPR

Astronomers are lining up to use a powerful new NASA telescope called SOFIA. The telescope has unique capabilities for studying things like how stars form and what's in the atmospheres of planets.

But unlike most of the space agency's telescopes, SOFIA isn't in space — it flies around mounted in a Boeing 747 jet with a large door cut on the side so the telescope can see out. Putting a telescope in space makes sense: There's no pesky atmosphere to make stars twinkle. But why put one on a plane?

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Space
1:56 pm
Sun September 25, 2011

Launch Logistics: Speedy Rocket, Slow Electronics

NASA's GRAIL mission to study the moon launches aboard a Delta II rocket at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 10.
Sandra Joseph and Don Kight NASA

Weird things jump out at me in press releases.

Take the press kit NASA prepared for the GRAIL mission. GRAIL consists of two nearly identical spacecraft that are on their way to the moon. Once there, they will make a precise map of the moon's gravitational field. Such a map will help scientists refine their theories about how the moon formed and what the interior is made of.

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Science
3:34 am
Sat September 10, 2011

Thirsty Birds 'Burn the Engine' In Flight

A Swainson's thrush flies a mock-migration in the wind tunnel at the University of Western Ontario.
Science AAAS

Migratory songbirds like Swainson's thrushes spend their winters in South and Central America. But as spring approaches, they fly thousands of miles north to Canada.

Along the way, these little birds show endurance that would shame even the toughest athletes. They can fly for up to eight hours straight without stopping for food or water.

Scientists know how birds cope without food during the flights: They burn fat. But until now, they haven't figured out the water question. How do migrating birds avoid dehydration after all that flying?

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Research News
7:03 pm
Fri September 2, 2011

Why The Trip Home Seems To Go By Faster

Does getting home from your vacation spot always seem to take less time than getting there? A new scientific study provides an explanation for why.
Harold M. Lambert Lambert/Getty Images

In 1969, astronaut Alan Bean went to the moon as the lunar module pilot on Apollo 12. Although the trip going to the moon covered the same distance as the trip back, "returning from the moon seemed much shorter," Bean says.

People will often feel a return trip took less time than the same outbound journey, even though it didn't. In the case of Apollo 12, the trip back from the moon really did take somewhat less time. But the point remains that this so-called "return trip effect" is a very real psychological phenomenon, and now a new scientific study provides an explanation.

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Shots - Health Blog
3:23 pm
Tue August 30, 2011

A Remnant From Algae In Malaria Parasite May Prove Its Weakness

An Anopheles albimanus mosquito, which is an important vector for malaria transmission in Central America.
James Gathany CDC

Scientists may have found a critical weakness in Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria. Researchers say the discovery provides a promising target for new malaria therapies.

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Shots - Health Blog
10:01 pm
Wed August 24, 2011

Better A You Than Me: Scientists Sicken Mosquitoes To Stop Dengue

Researchers hope to keep the mosquito that transmits dengue, Aedes aegypti, from infecting humans using the Wolbachia bacterium.
James Gathany CDC Public Health Image Library

Scientists in Australia are using a bacterium to try to stop a deadly virus in its tracks.

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Research News
12:58 pm
Thu August 18, 2011

Don't Throw It Out: 'Junk DNA' Essential In Evolution

iStockphoto.com

There's a revolution underway in biology. Scientists are coming to understand genetics isn't just about genes. Just as important are smaller sequences of DNA that control genes.

These so-called regulatory elements tell genes when to turn on and off, and when to stop functioning altogether. A new study suggests that changes in these non-gene sequences of DNA may hold the key to explaining how all species evolved.

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Research News
2:26 pm
Tue August 16, 2011

Cups Down: Scientists Crack 'The Coffee Ring Effect'

Scientists now know why coffee rings have have dark, well-defined edges, as seen in the image above. The research finding may have implications on the development of inks and paints.
Marina Dominguez NPR

A lot of simple things in science turn out to be quite complicated. Take, for example, coffee: you may have noticed that a spilled drop of coffee doesn't dry as a brown blob, but rather as a clear blob with a dark ring around the edge.

It's taken physicists more than a decade to figure out why this effect, known technically as "the coffee ring effect," happens. But now they think they have an answer.

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Shots - Health Blog
9:58 am
Thu August 11, 2011

Gene Therapy Breakthrough Trains Immune System To Fight Leukemia

Until now, scientists have had a tough time getting therapeutic genes to go where they need to go.
iStockphoto.com

Any time you report on promising but preliminary results about a new therapy for a lethal disease, you worry that you might be raising false hopes. So be warned: Although this is a "good news" story, it's preliminary. Don't expect to find it at a hospital near you any time soon.

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Research News
2:59 pm
Sun August 7, 2011

'Labs On A Chip' May Detect Diseases In The Field

Can the most modern of technologies help solve the health woes in the poorest countries in the world? Some biomedical engineers say yes. They are designing diagnostic laboratories that fit on something as small as a credit card, and give results in minutes instead of hours or days.

These devices are sometimes referred to as a "lab on a chip." To use them, all you need to do is obtain a drop of someone's blood.

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Space
3:00 am
Fri August 5, 2011

New NASA Missions Will Tour The Solar System

The Juno spacecraft, seen above Jupiter in this artist's rendering. Juno's primary mission is to improve our understanding of Jupiter's formation and evolution.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's space shuttle may be down for the count, but robotic planetary missions are up, up and away. Before the end of this year, three new solar system probes are due to launch.

Juno To Jupiter

Why Jupiter? Well it's big. "It's the largest of all the planets. In fact, it's got more material in it than all the rest of the solar system combined," says Scott Bolton, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and principal investigator for the Juno mission.

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Animals
1:46 pm
Wed August 3, 2011

How Blood-Sucking Vampire Bats Aim Their Bites

Let's say you're a vampire bat, and you are trying to decide where to bite your victim. You want a spot rich in blood, right? But how do you find such a spot?

Turns out, vampire bats have a kind of remote sensing ability that can tell them where there is a warm patch of skin on a nearby animal. And a warm patch of skin means there are blood vessels just below the skin surface. And now scientists have identified the molecular basis for this remote sensing ability.

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