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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1:22pm

Tue September 25, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

Korean Eunuchs Lived Long And Prospered

A mural in an ancient tomb in China shows a troupe of eunuchs. How long did they live?
Wikimedia Commons

Tell people you're doing a story about the life spans of Korean eunuchs, the typical reaction is a giggle or a cringe.

But if you can overcome your visceral response to the topic, a study scientists in Korea did is quite interesting, both for what they found, and the way they found it.

Several scientists have shown that there is a link between longevity and reproduction: the greater the fertility, the shorter the life span. This has been fairly well established in nonhuman animal species, but proving it's the case for humans has been tricky.

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2:25pm

Thu September 20, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

Could Genes For Stripes Help Kitty Fight Disease?

Originally published on Thu September 20, 2012 5:04 pm

The genetic factors responsible for a cat's stripes might help researchers understand disease resistance in humans.
kennymatic via Flickr

At this point it's just an interesting hypothesis, but it's possible that understanding cat coloration could help scientists understand resistance to infectious diseases.

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5:33pm

Mon September 10, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

Vaccine For Dengue Fever Shows A Glimmer Of Hope

A health worker in the Domincan Republic sprays insecticide between houses to stop dengue fever outbreaks this month.
Erika Santelices AFP/Getty Images

It's human nature to hope for positive results after spending months or even years conducting a research study. In well-designed studies, however, scientists identify in advance the criteria for success, so their optimism won't color their conclusions when the study is completed.

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2:52am

Thu September 6, 2012
Animals

Who's Your Daddy?: Male Snail Carries Eggs As Cargo

Originally published on Fri September 7, 2012 4:28 am

A male Solenosteira macrospira, left, carries snail eggs on its shell. But not all of the eggs were fertilized by him. Females, like the one on the right, deposit the eggs into papery capsules and attach them to the males' shells.
P.B. Marko Ecology Letters

A man is not a mollusk, and many men probably think that's a good thing. And it's not just because a mollusk is a squishy invertebrate with a shell. It's also because for at least one species of mollusk, the males do all the heavy lifting when it comes to childcare.

The species of mollusk we're talking about is Solenosteira macrospira, a marine snail about 2 inches long. These snails live off the coast of Baja California, and during the mating season, the beach is awash with male and female snails in connubial bliss.

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1:51pm

Thu August 30, 2012
Humans

Pinky DNA Points To Clues About Ancient Humans

Originally published on Thu August 30, 2012 5:09 pm

A replica of the pinky bone fragment found in a Siberian cave. Researchers used the bone bit to extract and sequence the genome of a girl who lived tens of thousands of years ago.
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Scientists in Germany have been able to get enough DNA from a fossilized pinky to produce a high-quality DNA sequence of the pinky's owner.

"It's a really amazing-quality genome," says David Reich of Harvard Medical School in Boston. "It's as good as modern human genome sequences, from a lot of ways of measuring it."

The pinky belonged to a girl who lived tens of thousands of years ago. Scientists aren't sure about the exact age. She is a member of an extinct group of humans called Denisovans. The name comes from Denisova cave in Siberia, where the pinky was found.

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2:23am

Thu August 23, 2012
Joe's Big Idea

Telescope Innovator Shines His Genius On New Fields

Originally published on Thu August 23, 2012 11:23 am

Roger Angel, an astronomer at the University of Arizona, stands in front of his new project: a solar tracker. Angel wants to use the device to harness Arizona's abundant sunlight and turn it into usable energy.
Jason Millstein for NPR

You may not be familiar with the name Roger Angel, but if there were ever a scientist with a creative streak a mile wide, it would be he.

Angel is an astronomer. He's famous for developing an entirely new way of making really large, incredibly precise telescope mirrors. But his creativity doesn't stop there. He's now turned his attention to solar power, hoping to use the tricks he learned from capturing distant light from stars to do a more cost-efficient job of capturing light from the Sun.

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2:31am

Mon August 13, 2012
Joe's Big Idea

Summer Science: What's A Meteor Shower?

Originally published on Mon August 13, 2012 3:23 am

In this photo released by SkyandTelescope.com, a Perseid meteor flashes across the constellation Andromeda on Aug. 12, 1997.
Rick Scott and Joe Orman AP

NPR science correspondent Joe Palca is on a mission this summer to answer the deep, burning questions of summertime. So far he's taught us how to build a campfire, explained the best way to roast a perfect marshmallow and explored the icy mystery of brain freeze.

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2:00am

Fri August 10, 2012
Joe's Big Idea

So You Landed On Mars. Now What?

Originally published on Fri August 10, 2012 5:28 am

Adam Steltzner, the leader of the rover's entry, descent and landing engineering team, cheers after Curiosity touched down safely on Mars on Sunday.
Bill Ingalls/NASA Getty Images

The Mars rover Curiosity is beginning its fifth day on the red planet, and it's been performing flawlessly from the moment it landed.

That's been especially gratifying for NASA landing engineer Adam Steltzner. Last Friday, while Steltzner was still on pins and needles waiting for the landing to take place, I told the story of Steltzner's decision as a young man to give up his life as a rocker and go for a career in space engineering.

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5:51pm

Mon August 6, 2012
The Two-Way

After A Historic Landing, A Postcard From The Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Originally published on Tue August 7, 2012 7:42 am

NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld waits for landing inside the Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. on Sunday.
Brian van der Brug AP

The newsroom at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is beginning to thin out as the Mars Science Laboratory transitions from an exciting news story, to a long duration — possibly very long duration — exploration of the geologic and environmental history of Mars.

For the reporters still in the newsroom, fatigue is beginning to set in. BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos has been at it nonstop for 30 hours. I feel a bit guilty for stepping out and getting a few hours sleep.

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4:22pm

Mon August 6, 2012
Space

Curiosity Is On Mars, Now What?

Originally published on Mon August 6, 2012 5:44 pm

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

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. NASA engineers are still giddy after a successful landing on Mars.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's the wheel. It's the wheel.

(APPLAUSE)

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3:33pm

Sun August 5, 2012
Space

Waiting For A Sign: Mars Rover To Land On Its Own

Originally published on Sun August 5, 2012 10:49 pm

An artist's concept of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft depicts the final minute before the rover, Curiosity, touches down on the surface of Mars.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

If all goes according to plan, the Mars Science Laboratory, nicknamed Curiosity, will land gently on Mars at 10:31 PDT Sunday night. The rover's entry, descent and landing will last for a total of seven minutes. During that time, the rover must slow down from 13,000 mph to a dead-stop touchdown on the surface of Mars.

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5:11am

Sun August 5, 2012
Joe's Big Idea

Scientists Look To Martian Rocks For History Of Life

Originally published on Sun August 5, 2012 10:41 am

Mmm, nice rock! This rover's looking for secrets to the history of life on Mars.
Photo Illustration Courtesy NASA

NASA has sent rovers to explore Mars before. But three words explain what makes this latest mission to Mars so different: location, location, location.

The rover Curiosity is slated to land late Sunday in Gale Crater, near the base of a 3-mile-high mountain with layers like the Grand Canyon. Scientists think those rocks could harbor secrets about the history of water — and life — on the Red Planet.

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6:32am

Sat August 4, 2012
Space

Anxiety Hovers Over Rover's Mars Landing

Originally published on Sun August 5, 2012 10:43 am

Transcript

SUSAN STAMBERG, HOST:

These are tense times for scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. Late Sunday night Pacific Time, they'll learn if nearly a decade of hard work will result in a priceless scientific laboratory landing safely on Mars or if the rover known as Curiosity will turn into a useless pile of junk. Everything depends on what happens during the seven minutes of terror, the time it takes the probe to go from the top of the Martian atmosphere to the planet's surface.

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4:05am

Fri August 3, 2012
Joe's Big Idea

Crazy Smart: When A Rocker Designs A Mars Lander

Originally published on Fri August 3, 2012 5:43 pm

NASA engineer Adam Steltzner led the team that designed a crazy new approach to landing on Mars.
Rachael Porter for NPR

It's called the seven minutes of terror. In just seven minutes, NASA's latest mission to Mars, a new six-wheeled rover called Curiosity, must go from 13,000 mph as it enters the Martian atmosphere to a dead stop on the surface.

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3:55am

Wed July 25, 2012
Joe's Big Idea

Summer Science: Clothes Keep You Cool, More Or Less

Originally published on Wed July 25, 2012 9:05 am

United States runner Kam Conley sheds layers to train for the Olympics in England on Monday. Less clothing means more evaporation, keeping athletes cooler.
Hussein Malla AP

The cool weather in London is good news for the Olympic athletes because their bodies won't need to put as much energy into cooling off.

But most of us aren't lucky enough to be headed to London, and we could use some help keeping cool.

When you get hot you sweat — but it's not enough to just sweat. To cool off, you need that sweat to evaporate. It's evaporation that drains the heat from your body.

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