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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Joe's Big Idea
4:11 am
Sun August 5, 2012

Scientists Look To Martian Rocks For History Of Life

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

Originally published on Sun August 5, 2012 9:41 am

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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Space
5:32 am
Sat August 4, 2012

Anxiety Hovers Over Rover's Mars Landing

Originally published on Sun August 5, 2012 9:43 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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Joe's Big Idea
3:14 am
Fri August 3, 2012

Crazy Smart: When A Rocker Designs A Mars Lander

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

Originally published on Fri August 3, 2012 4:43 pm

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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Joe's Big Idea
2:55 am
Wed July 25, 2012

Summer Science: Clothes Keep You Cool, More Or Less

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

Originally published on Wed July 25, 2012 8:05 am

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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Remembrances
4:48 am
Tue July 24, 2012

The Space Trip That Made Sally Ride A Folk Hero

Originally published on Wed July 25, 2012 8:30 am

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're remembering this morning the first American woman to go into space: Sally Ride. She died yesterday in San Diego. Ride made her historic trip into space in 1983 aboard the space shuttle Challenger, a trip that made her an instant folk hero. NPR's Joe Palca has our report.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Sally Ride was born on May 26th, 1951. She grew up in the San Fernando Valley, just outside Los Angeles, where she went to Westlake High School.

SUSAN OKIE: She prided herself on being an underachiever.

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The Salt
1:20 am
Wed July 11, 2012

Cool Down With A Hot Drink? It's Not As Crazy As You Think

Joe Palca serves up some hot tea on a very hot day at Teaism in Washington, D.C., last week.
Maggie Starbard NPR

Originally published on Wed July 11, 2012 7:47 pm

Hot tea on a hot day? Not for me, thank you. Not my idea of how to cool down.

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Science
8:51 am
Mon July 9, 2012

Tell the World Your Big Idea With NPR's 'What's Your Big Idea?' Video Contest

NPR

Originally published on Sun August 19, 2012 1:22 pm

I have a simple question for you: Do you have a good idea? Something that could change the world?

Enter your big idea in NPR's "What's Your Big Idea?" video contest from July 9 to Aug. 12, 2012, and you could win the chance to get advice on making your big idea a reality from a big name in science and technology. And even if you don't win that grand prize, we'll showcase your video on NPR's YouTube channel and on Facebook.

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Science
1:30 am
Tue July 3, 2012

When Ice Cream Attacks: The Mystery Of Brain Freeze

NPR interns (from left) Angela Wong and Kevin Uhrmacher participate in an experiment to induce brain freeze.
Benjamin Morris NPR

Originally published on Tue July 3, 2012 12:12 pm

If it hasn't happened to you, count yourself as lucky. For many people, eating ice cream or drinking an icy drink too fast can produce a really painful headache. It usually hits in the front of the brain, behind the forehead.

The technical name for this phenomenon is cold-stimulus headache, but people also refer to it as "ice cream headache" or "brain freeze."

The good news is that brain freeze is easy to prevent — just eat more slowly. The other bit of good news is these headaches don't last very long — a minute at the outside.

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Science
3:08 am
Tue June 12, 2012

Summer Science: The Perfectly Toasted Marshmallow

Joe Palca's perfectly toasted marshmallow.
Maggie Starbard NPR

Originally published on Tue June 12, 2012 6:18 am

It's the epic quest of campers everywhere: How do you get the perfectly toasted marshmallow? In our inaugural installment of NPR's Summer Science series, we gave some guidance on the first key ingredient: how to build the campfire. (Later this summer, we'll attempt to answer the vexing question of how to stave off brain freeze.)

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Science
1:01 am
Fri June 8, 2012

'Eliminate Dengue' Team Has A Deep (Lab) Bench

Scott O'Neill is leading a global effort to rid the world of dengue fever. "Finding a way to manage a group of people who are all quite individualistic and having them work together towards this common goal is critical," he says.
Greg Ford

Originally published on Mon June 11, 2012 1:03 pm

Second of a two-part series. Read Part 1

Every profession has its symbols of success. For opera singers, it's performing at La Scala or the Met. For mountain climbers it's making it to the top of Everest. For scientists, if you get two papers published in the same issue of a prestigious journal like Nature, you're hot.

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Science
12:52 am
Thu June 7, 2012

A Scientist's 20-Year Quest To Defeat Dengue Fever

Scott O'Neill wants to rid the world of dengue fever by infecting mosquitoes with bacteria so they can't carry the virus that causes the disease.
Benjamin Arthur for NPR

Originally published on Fri July 6, 2012 1:26 pm

First of a two-part series

This summer, my big idea is to explore the big ideas of science. Instead of just reporting science as results — the stuff that's published in scientific journals and covered as news — I want to take you inside the world of science. I hope I'll make it easier to understand how science works, and just how cool the process of discovery and innovation really is.

A lot of science involves failure, but there are also the brilliant successes, successes that can lead to new inventions, new tools, new drugs — things that can change the world

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Science
12:42 am
Mon June 4, 2012

Summer Science: How To Build A Campfire

iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Mon June 4, 2012 9:10 am

Summer living is supposed to be easy — school is out, the days are long, the traffic eases. But it's not all inner tubes and lemonade: Summer can throw us some curveballs, too. How can I avoid sunburn? What can I do to stave off that brain freeze? Why do my s'mores always burn?

Fear not; NPR is here to help. As part of our new Summer Science series, we'll turn to science to tackle these vexing questions, starting with how to build the perfect campfire.

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Humans
1:04 am
Wed April 18, 2012

Can You Think Your Way To That Hole-In-One?

Bo Van Pelt celebrates his hole-in-one during the final round of the Masters on April 8. New research suggests that golfers may be able to improve their games by believing the hole they're aiming for is larger than it really is.
Andrew Redington Getty Images

Originally published on Wed April 18, 2012 5:50 am

Psychologists at Purdue University have come up with an interesting twist on the old notion of the power of positive thinking. Call it the power of positive perception: They've shown that you may be able to improve your golf game by believing the hole you're aiming for is larger than it really is.

Jessica Witt, who studies how perception and performance are related, decided to look at golf — specifically, how the appearance of the hole changes depending on whether you're playing well or poorly.

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Space
1:05 am
Tue April 3, 2012

Earth Has Just One Moon, Right? Think Again

The last lunar eclipse of 2011 as seen from the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles on Dec 10, 2011.
Frederic J. Brown AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Wed April 4, 2012 12:01 pm

Everybody knows that there's just one moon orbiting the Earth. But a new study by an international team of astronomers concludes that everybody is dead wrong about that.

"At any time, there are one or two 1-meter diameter asteroids in orbit around the Earth," says Robert Jedicke, an astronomer at the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii.

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Space
3:09 pm
Wed March 21, 2012

Spacecraft's Wild Ride To Mercury Yields Surprises

The Messenger spacecraft is depicted over the Calvino Crater on Mercury in this enhanced-color image of the planet's surface.
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Originally published on Wed December 12, 2012 4:40 pm

There's a small spacecraft called Messenger that's been orbiting the planet Mercury for a year. Today, at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, astronomers revealed what they've learned about the innermost planet in our solar system, and some of the new knowledge is puzzling.

Maria Zuber, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studied a large crater 900 miles across called Caloris.

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The Salt
2:30 pm
Wed March 21, 2012

Into The Wild Science Of Sourdough Bread-Making

Margaret Palca in her bakery in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Chris Eichler for NPR

Originally published on Wed March 21, 2012 2:50 pm

My sister is no science writer, and I'm no baker, but recently our worlds melded in a surprising way.

Here's what happened: Last October, I attended a workshop on artisanal bread and cheese-making at Salt Water Farms in Lincolnville, Maine. Farm manager Ladleah Dunn introduced us to the concept of making sourdough bread with levain, or starter, instead of packaged yeast.

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The Two-Way
2:55 pm
Thu March 15, 2012

Arizona Telescope Sets New Standard For Optical Astronomy

Lab testing of the LBT adaptive secondary mirror system.
Large Binocular Telescope

A telescope in Arizona has taken some of the clearest pictures ever of distant celestial objects, including the first images of the innermost planet in a planetary system 127 light years from Earth. They achieved this astronomical tour de force using something called adaptive optics, a technique that eliminates the blurring caused by the Earth's atmosphere.

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The Salt
2:00 pm
Thu February 23, 2012

Why Astronauts Crave Tabasco Sauce

Astronauts may have a particular affinity for Tabasco sauce in space because their sense of smell and taste is distorted.
John Rose NPR

If you think astronauts just want dehydrated dinners and freeze-dried ice cream, think again. After a few days in space, they start reaching for the hot sauce.

In fact, they may start craving foods they didn't necessarily like on Earth.

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Space
3:48 pm
Tue February 14, 2012

New Telescope To Make 10-Year Time Lapse Of Sky

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, seen in this artist's rendering, will be built on the peak of the Cerro Pachon mountain in Chile and will survey every patch of the night sky. The data the telescope will collect will allow researchers to "answer fundamentally different questions about the universe," says one astronomer.
Todd Mason LSST Corp.

Originally published on Fri January 10, 2014 3:30 pm

Every 10 years, about two dozen of this country's top astronomers and astrophysicists get together under the auspices of the National Research Council and make a wish list. The list has on it the new telescopes these astronomers would most like to see built. At the last gathering, they said, in essence, "We most want the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope."

Here's why. A synoptic survey is a comprehensive map of every square inch of the night sky. The Large Synoptic Survey — LSST — will do that multiple times.

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Research News
4:12 am
Sat February 11, 2012

Deconstructing Dengue: How Old Is That Mosquito?

Mosquitoes like this one can carry the virus that causes dengue fever.
James Gathany CDC Public Health Image Library

Originally published on Sat February 11, 2012 9:46 am

Scientists can spend years working on problems that at first may seem esoteric and rather pointless. For example, there's a scientist in Arizona who's trying to find a way to measure the age of wild mosquitoes.

As weird as that sounds, the work is important for what it will tell scientists about the natural history of mosquitoes. It also could have major implications for human health.

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Shots - Health Blog
1:25 pm
Fri January 27, 2012

Scratching An Ankle Is Hard To Beat

Now that feels good.
Arman Zhenikeyev iStockphoto.com

There are few more sybaritic pleasures than scratching an itch.

But according to a study just out in the British Journal of Dermatology, the intensity of the scratching delight varies with the location of the itch.

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Space
10:01 pm
Wed January 25, 2012

Want To Make A Giant Telescope Mirror? Here's How

Giant Magellan Telescope
Giant Magellan Telescope

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:05 am

The world's largest mirrors for the world's largest telescopes are made under the football stadium at the University of Arizona.

Why there? Why not?

"We wanted some space, and it was just used for parking some cars, and this seemed like a good use," says Roger Angel.

Angel is the master of making big mirrors for telescopes. For 30 years he has been using a method called spin casting to make the largest solid telescope mirrors in the world.

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Science
10:01 pm
Sun January 1, 2012

Biotech Firms Caught In Regulatory No Man's Land

Companies making genetically modified animals face a regulatory morass in this country. It's not always clear which federal agency has responsibility for regulating a particular animal, and even when one agency does take the lead, the approval process can drag on for years.

The companies say this uncertainty means their technologies may die without ever being given a chance.

Take the case of the British company Oxitec. It has developed a genetically modified mosquito that the company says can be used to combat a disease called dengue.

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It Was A Good Year For...
10:23 am
Sat December 31, 2011

For Lab Mice, The Medical Advances Keep Coming

Takashi Yokoo, head of a project researching kidney regeneration at Tokyo's Jikei University School of Medicine, holds a mouse at his laboratory.
Yoshikazu Tsuno AFP/Getty Images

When scientists want to test new therapies for cancer or heart disease, they frequently turn to mice for help. For most mice, this isn't the best thing that could happen to them. Being a research subject has definite disadvantages, at least for mice.

But most people prefer a new therapy be tested in a rodent rather than making a human patient the guinea pig — if you'll forgive the twisted metaphor.

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Research News
10:01 pm
Sun December 25, 2011

The Wisdom Of Trees (Leonardo Da Vinci Knew It)

Leonardo DaVinci noted that when trees branch, smaller branches have a precise, mathematical relationship to the branch they sprang from.
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Mon January 9, 2012 11:15 am

Hurricanes topple plenty of trees, but when you think about it, the more amazing thing is that many trees can stand up to these 100-mile-per-hour winds.

Now a French scientist has come up with an explanation for the resilience of trees. And astonishingly, the answer was first described by Leonardo da Vinci 500 years ago.

Leonardo noticed that when trees branch, smaller branches have a precise, mathematical relationship to the branch from which they sprang. Many people have verified Leonardo's rule, as it's known, but no one had a good explanation for it.

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The Salt
1:00 pm
Mon December 12, 2011

Safety Concerns Linger Around Genetically Modified Salmon

Originally published on Mon December 12, 2011 2:03 pm

This just in: After 15 years of deliberation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to decide whether it will approve a genetically modified salmon for human consumption.

Now there's a catchy lead. But the truth is, the long-running regulatory saga of AquaBounty's application to sell salmon with a growth hormone gene from one fish plus a promoter of an antifreeze gene from another — which help it grow twice as fast as typical farmed salmon — does not seem headed toward a conclusion.

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Space
4:00 am
Sat November 26, 2011

New Roving Science Lab Charts A Course For Mars

The compact car-sized Mars Science Laboratory is due to land on the red planet on Aug. 6, 2012. It is equipped with a suite of instruments to study rocks and soils, and take other measurements.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Originally published on Sun November 27, 2011 3:40 am

It's time to go back to Mars. Once every two years, the orbits of Earth and Mars are aligned just right, so it's possible to send a spacecraft from here to there. That special time is now.

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Animals
10:01 pm
Thu November 24, 2011

Beer Or Sugar Water? For Flies, The Choice Is Pale Ale

Flies are attracted to glycerol, a chemical in beer produced during fermentation. Understanding more about the genes responsible for taste and smell in flies could help make powerful insect repellents.
iStockphoto.com

Scientists in California think they've figure out why flies like beer. That may sound a bit trivial, but in fact it could lead to new ways of combating plant and animal pests.

That flies like beer is well known. "The attraction of flies to beer was first reported in the early 1920s," says Anupama Dahanukar. She's part of an inter-disciplinary program involving neuroscience and entomology at the University of California, Riverside. She's been studying how flies recognize chemicals, so answering the question of why flies like beer is actually quite relevant to her research.

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The Salt
2:23 pm
Wed November 16, 2011

The Secret To Foie Gras That Keeps Its Fat Is In The Liver

A jury member feels a piece of duck foie gras during a contest of local producers and producers from southwestern France.
BOB EDME ASSOCIATED PRESS

People get very riled up about foie gras, the fatty liver of ducks and geese.

Some are bothered by the force feedings the ducks and geese undergo to produce those fatty livers, which are 6 to 10 times the normal size. Others fear the fat itself – although foie gras enthusiasts insist that the delicacy is "surprising low in bad fats, and high in good fats."

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Science
10:01 pm
Wed November 9, 2011

Credit Controversy: Who Made Key Cosmos Discovery?

American astronomer Edwin Hubble looks through the eyepiece of the 100-inch telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles, 1937. In 1929, Hubble proposed that the more distant a galaxy is, the faster it appears to be receding from us, a concept that has become known as Hubble's law.
Margaret Bourke-White Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

A controversy erupted earlier this year over who deserved credit for what many say is the most important astronomical discovery of the 20th century: the realization that the universe was expanding.

In 1929, American astronomer Edwin Hubble proposed that the more distant a galaxy is, the faster it appears to be receding from us, a concept that is known as Hubble's law.

Astronomer Mario Livio has worked with the Hubble Space Telescope for more than 20 years. "So clearly, anything Hubble is of interest to me," he says.

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