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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7:35am

Sat July 26, 2014
Space

Close Encounters Of The Radio Kind? Mystery Bursts Baffle Astronomers

Originally published on Sat July 26, 2014 9:43 am

Scientists say a brief burst of radio activity has been detected at the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. This new report resembles previous activity detected in Australia, which has scientist debating possible causes, including solar flares, blitzars, or something even more mysterious.
Brian Negin iStockphoto

Astronomers have a mystery on their hands. Two large radio telescopes, on opposite sides of the planet, have detected very brief, very powerful bursts of radio waves.

Right now, astronomers have no idea what's causing these bursts or where they're coming from. And nothing has been ruled out at the moment — not even the kind of outrageous claims you'd expect to see in tabloid headlines.

Australian Recordings Inspire Curiosity And Doubt

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3:45am

Tue July 22, 2014
Space

Rosetta Spacecraft Readies For Rendezvous With Comet

Originally published on Tue July 22, 2014 12:13 pm

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

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3:53pm

Thu July 17, 2014
Science

To Make A Spacecraft That Folds And Unfolds, Try Origami

Originally published on Thu July 17, 2014 7:40 pm

Scientists and engineers at NASA are using origami techniques to help solve a fundamental dilemma facing spacecraft designers: How do you take a big object, pack it into a small container for rocket launch, and then unpack it again once it arrives in space — making sure nothing breaks in the process.

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3:30pm

Fri June 27, 2014
Science

If They Want To Make Anything, Proteins Must Know How To Fold

Originally published on Mon June 30, 2014 9:46 am

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Events unfold. Plots unfold. And this summer, NPR science correspondent Joe Palca has been telling us how science unfolds. It's series we're creatively calling Unfolding Science.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME SONG)

BLOCK: Today, Joe tells us about large biological molecules called proteins that have to fold and unfold properly to keep us alive.

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4:22am

Sat May 31, 2014
Shots - Health News

Phone App Might Predict Manic Episodes In Bipolar Disorder

Originally published on Mon June 2, 2014 7:31 am

Manic, sad, up, down. Your voice may reveal mood shifts.
iStockphoto

There are smartphone apps for monitoring your diet, your drugs, even your heart. And now a Michigan psychiatrist is developing an app he hopes doctors will someday use to predict when a manic episode is imminent in patients with bipolar disorder.

People with the disorder alternate between crushing depression and wild manic episodes that come with the dangerous mix of uncontrollable energy and impaired judgment.

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4:00pm

Sun May 18, 2014
Humans

The First American Teenager, Millennia-Old And Underwater

Originally published on Sun May 18, 2014 5:28 pm

Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

From the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'M Tess Vigeland. Let us contemplate the American teenage girl, perhaps the very first one. Apparently, there's been some scientific debate about who she is and whether she hails from the same gene sequence as what we think of as the first Americans, American Indians. And when I say gene sequence, we're not talking about Skinnies from Urban Outfitters. NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca has the story of a very old American teenage identity crisis.

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2:33am

Wed May 7, 2014
Shots - Health News

Faith Drives A Father To Create A Test For Childhood Cancer

Originally published on Tue May 13, 2014 12:32 pm

Elizabeth, Samuel, Bryan and Noah Shaw amid Texas bluebonnets on Easter Sunday. Samuel was conceived with in vitro fertilization so he would not suffer from the hereditary cancer that afflicted Noah.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Shaw

When Bryan and Elizabeth Shaw learned that their son Noah had a potentially deadly eye cancer, like a lot of people, they turned to their religious faith to help sustain them. But faith is also impelling Bryan Shaw to create software to detect eye cancer in children as soon after birth as possible.

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2:37am

Tue May 6, 2014
Shots - Health News

Chemist Turns Software Developer After Son's Cancer Diagnosis

Originally published on Tue May 13, 2014 12:34 pm

Noah Shaw, now 5, shows off his Texas roots at a recent birthday party.
Courtesy of Bryan Shaw

A scientist's ambitious plan to create an early detection system for eye cancer using people's home cameras is coming along.

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3:16pm

Thu March 6, 2014
Science

The Scientist Who Makes Stars On Earth

Originally published on Wed June 4, 2014 8:34 am

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

On the outskirts of Albuquerque, New Mexico, scientists are doing something astonishing. They're creating a white dwarf star - not a whole star but enough of one to study in minute detail. As part of his series, "Joe's Big Idea," NPR's Joe Palca introduces us to the astronomer behind this exotic project and explains why he's determined to learn all he can about this interesting stellar object.

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4:14pm

Wed March 5, 2014
Shots - Health News

To Clean Drinking Water, All You Need Is A Stick

Originally published on Tue May 27, 2014 2:25 pm

Current water-filtering technology is costly, but MIT scientists are testing a simpler and cheaper method that uses wood from white pine trees.
Wikimedia Commons

Removing all the dangerous bacteria from drinking water would have enormous health benefits for people around the world.

The technologies exist for doing that, but there's a problem: cost.

Now a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology thinks he's on to a much less expensive way to clean up water.

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1:33pm

Mon February 3, 2014
Shots - Health News

Inexpensive Aquarium Bubbler Saves Preemies' Lives

A nurse attaches the low-cost breathing machine (far left) to an infant at The Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi.
Jocelyn Brown Rice University

There's only one thing better than having a good idea, and that's having a good idea that really works.

Earlier this year, I reported on some students at Rice University who had designed a low-cost medical device to help premature infants breathe.

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4:04am

Fri January 31, 2014
Research News

Scientists Come Close To Finding True Magnetic Monopole

Originally published on Mon June 30, 2014 9:55 am

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Scientists may have filled in a gap in one the fundamental theories of physics. We've always been told that magnets have two poles, north and south. But theory suggests there should be something called a magnetic monopole, a magnet that has either a north pole or a south pole but not both of them. So far no one has found this elusive magnetic monopole.

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4:28pm

Tue January 21, 2014
Science

After Hibernation, Rosetta Seeks Its Stone

Originally published on Wed January 22, 2014 1:58 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The European Space Agency's Rosetta mission is back in business. For the past 31 months, the spacecraft has effectively been asleep. Most of its instruments were shut off to save energy, including the radio for communicating with Earth. Mission managers can now start preparing Rosetta for a rendezvous with a comet later this year. NPR's Joe Palca has more.

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7:52am

Sat January 4, 2014
Shots - Health News

Saving Babies' Lives Starts With Aquarium Pumps And Ingenuity

Originally published on Tue April 22, 2014 8:59 am

Neonatal nurse Florence Mwenifumbo monitors a newborn receiving bubble CPAP treatment in Blantyre, Malawi. The device was developed by students at Rice University in Houston.
Rice 360/Rice University

Good ideas don't only come from experts. An innovative engineering program in Texas has been proving that college undergraduates can tackle — and solve — vexing health challenges in developing countries.

Two engineers at Rice University in Houston are tapping the potential of bright young minds to change the world.

Big Problems, Simple Solutions

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2:05am

Thu November 28, 2013
Shots - Health News

'The Coolest Thing Ever': How A Robotic Arm Changed 4 Lives

Originally published on Tue April 22, 2014 9:00 am

Dee Faught tests a robotic arm installed on his wheelchair in September. Commercially produced robotic arms can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but three Rice engineering students built one for Dee for about $800.
Eric Kayne for NPR

Three engineering undergrads at Rice University gave a teenager with a rare genetic disease something he'd always wished for: the ability to turn off the light in his room.

It may not seem like much, but for 17-year-old Dee Faught, it represents a new kind of independence.

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