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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4:01am

Mon December 15, 2014
Research News

Why Some Scientific Collaborations Are More Beneficial Than Others

Originally published on Mon December 15, 2014 6:16 am

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

2:14am

Thu December 4, 2014
The Two-Way

To Search For A New Supernova, Build A New Camera

Originally published on Thu December 11, 2014 1:03 pm

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

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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2:38am

Mon November 24, 2014
Shots - Health News

Africa Inspires A Health Care Experiment In New York

Originally published on Mon November 24, 2014 4:09 pm

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

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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11:33am

Mon November 3, 2014
The Salt

A Non-GMO Way To Get More, Tastier Tomatoes

Researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory say their new genetic toolkit to improve tomato yield without compromising flavor can be used in all varieties, from plum to cherry.
Courtesy of Zach Lippman/Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

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?

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3:57am

Fri October 31, 2014
Shots - Health News

Look Here: Phone App Checks Photos For Eye Disease

Originally published on Fri October 31, 2014 10:02 am

Examples of what the iPhone app looks for: The white reflection from an otherwise dark pupil can indicate a tumor, a cataract or other eye problems.
Claire Eggers NPR

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.

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2:20am

Mon October 13, 2014
Shots - Health News

In Hopes Of Fixing Faulty Genes, One Scientist Starts With The Basics

Originally published on Fri October 31, 2014 8:46 am

Jennifer Doudna and her colleagues found an enzyme in bacteria that makes editing DNA in animal cells much easier.
Cailey Cotner/UC Berkeley

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.

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12:03pm

Sun October 12, 2014
Shots - Health News

Slippery When Coated: Helping Medical Devices Prevent Blood Clots

The slide on the right has been treated with a coating that repels blood.
Wyss Institute via Vimeo

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.

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4:02pm

Sun September 21, 2014
Space

Mission To Study Mars' Climate Enters Red Planet's Orbit

Originally published on Sun September 21, 2014 9:41 pm

In this artist concept provided by NASA, the MAVEN spacecraft approaches Mars on a mission to study its upper atmosphere.
AP

This Sunday night, we headed back to Mars: NASA's MAVEN spacecraft fired its six main engines, slowing down enough so it could be captured by the gravity of the red planet and go into orbit.

MAVEN, which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, is a distinctly un-sexy name for a project as cool as a sojourn to Mars. But whatever it's called, the probe is on a mission that should be of interest to everyone who likes living on Earth.

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2:27am

Wed August 27, 2014
Shots - Health News

Build A Toothbrush, Change The World. Or Not

Originally published on Wed August 27, 2014 9:08 am

The MD Brush has an unusual grip that automatically angles the brush head at 45 degrees.
Meredith Rizzo NPR

Some people dream of climbing Mount Everest or riding a bicycle across the country. Mike Davidson's dream has been to create the perfect toothbrush, and now he thinks he's done it.

The saga of this brush tells a lot about the passion and persistence to take an idea and turn it into a product.

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2:27am

Mon August 11, 2014
Shots - Health News

Where We Learn That Artificial Eyes Really Aren't Round At All

Originally published on Tue August 12, 2014 2:49 pm

A prosthetic eye is a work of art custom-crafted for an individual.
Rebecca Davis NPR

Almost every time reporters go out on assignment, they run across something unexpected that they just can't fit into the story they're working on.

When science correspondent Joe Palca and producer Rebecca Davis were in Boston reporting on a boy with a rare form of cancer, they found themselves in the office of Jahrling Ocular Prosthetics, a business dedicated to making artificial eyes.

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1:03pm

Thu August 7, 2014
Joe's Big Idea

Transformer Paper Turns Itself Into A Robot. Cool!

Originally published on Thu August 28, 2014 5:43 pm

This little guy changes from flat sheet of paper to critter in about four minutes.
Seth Kroll/Wyss Institute

Every so often, a scientific paper just begs for a sexy headline.

Consider this study in the current issue of Science: "A Method for Building Self-folding Machines." A bit bland, you'll no doubt agree. A Real-Life, Origami-Inspired Transformer is how the journal's public affairs department referred to it. Now that's more like it.

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7:35am

Sat July 26, 2014
Space

Close Encounters Of The Radio Kind? Mystery Bursts Baffle Astronomers

Originally published on Mon July 28, 2014 7:50 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 Mon July 28, 2014 7:58 am

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

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 Wed September 3, 2014 3:26 pm

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

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)

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