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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Around the Nation
4:39 pm
Thu November 1, 2012

In Flooded New Jersey, No Oversight For Levees

An emergency responder helps residents of Little Ferry, N.J., after their neighborhood was flooded due to Superstorm Sandy.
Andrew Burton Getty Images

Originally published on Thu November 1, 2012 6:42 pm

Residents of Moonachie and Little Ferry, N.J., are beginning to clear the damage after their communities were inundated by floodwaters. The flooding occurred when a system of levees and berms was unable to control the storm surge pushed ashore by Superstorm Sandy.

Geologist Jeffrey Mount of the University of California, Davis, isn't surprised. "There really are only two kinds of levees," he says, "those that have failed, and those that will fail."

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Shots - Health Blog
3:29 am
Mon October 15, 2012

Spray Lights Up The Chemical That Causes Poison Ivy Rash

Urushiol, the chemical in poison ivy, is also harvested from the Japanese lacquer tree to coat lacquerware. Here, a rash caused by lacquerware that likely was not properly cured.
Kenji Kabashima

Originally published on Thu October 18, 2012 2:17 pm

You'd think that someone who is a science correspondent and is as allergic to poison ivy as I am would have heard of urushiol, but no. I didn't recognize the word when I saw it a week or so ago. Now, thanks to my new beat (Joe's Big Idea), I'm allowed to dig a little deeper into stories, and what I learned about urushiol is pretty amazing.

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The Salt
12:58 pm
Thu October 11, 2012

100 Years Ago, Maillard Taught Us Why Our Food Tastes Better Cooked

A tower of profiteroles like this one, known as croquembouche, was created in France to celebrate Maillard, the man credited with identifying a key reaction in food science.
Gavin Tapp via Flickr

Originally published on Thu October 11, 2012 2:36 pm

A few hundred scientists gathered in the small French city of Nancy recently to present scientific papers related to a chemical reaction. Now that may seem a bit humdrum and hardly worth mentioning in The Salt, but in this case, it isn't.

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Shots - Health Blog
3:17 am
Wed October 10, 2012

Fun With Physics: How To Make Tiny Medicine Nanoballs

Álvaro Marín

Originally published on Thu October 11, 2012 9:20 am

For the past decade, scientists have been toying with the notion of encapsulating medicine in microscopic balls.

These so-called nanospheres could travel inside the body to hard-to-reach places, like the brain or the inside of a tumor. One problem researchers face is how to build these nanospheres, because you'd have to make them out of even smaller nanoparticles.

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Shots - Health Blog
2:12 pm
Tue September 25, 2012

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

Originally published on Tue September 25, 2012 2:22 pm

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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Shots - Health Blog
3:07 pm
Thu September 20, 2012

Could Genes For Stripes Help Kitty Fight Disease?

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

Originally published on Thu September 20, 2012 6:04 pm

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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Shots - Health Blog
6:33 pm
Mon September 10, 2012

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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Animals
3:52 am
Thu September 6, 2012

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

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

Originally published on Fri September 7, 2012 5:28 am

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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Humans
2:51 pm
Thu August 30, 2012

Pinky DNA Points To Clues About Ancient Humans

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

Originally published on Thu August 30, 2012 6:09 pm

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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Joe's Big Idea
3:23 am
Thu August 23, 2012

Telescope Innovator Shines His Genius On New Fields

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

Originally published on Thu August 23, 2012 12:23 pm

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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Joe's Big Idea
3:31 am
Mon August 13, 2012

Summer Science: What's A Meteor Shower?

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

Originally published on Mon August 13, 2012 4:23 am

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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Joe's Big Idea
3:00 am
Fri August 10, 2012

So You Landed On Mars. Now What?

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

Originally published on Fri August 10, 2012 6:28 am

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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The Two-Way
6:58 pm
Mon August 6, 2012

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

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

Originally published on Tue August 7, 2012 8:42 am

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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Space
5:19 pm
Mon August 6, 2012

Curiosity Is On Mars, Now What?

Originally published on Mon August 6, 2012 6:44 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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NPR Story
4:37 am
Mon August 6, 2012

NASA's Curiosity Lands On Red Planet

Originally published on Mon August 6, 2012 1:02 pm

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

They were pretty cheerful at NASA this morning after an unmanned vehicle set down on the surface of Mars.

JOHN HOLDREN: If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of U.S. leadership in space, well, there's a one ton automobile-size piece of American ingenuity...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPALUSE)

HOLDREN: ...and it's sitting on the surface of Mars right now, and it should certainly put any such doubts to rest.

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Space
4:33 pm
Sun August 5, 2012

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

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

Originally published on Sun August 5, 2012 11:49 pm

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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Joe's Big Idea
6:11 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 11:41 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
7:32 am
Sat August 4, 2012

Anxiety Hovers Over Rover's Mars Landing

Originally published on Sun August 5, 2012 11:43 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
4:56 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 6:43 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
4:55 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 10:05 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
6:48 am
Tue July 24, 2012

The Space Trip That Made Sally Ride A Folk Hero

Originally published on Wed July 25, 2012 10:30 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
3:20 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 9:47 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
10:51 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 3:22 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
3:30 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 2:12 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
5:08 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 8:18 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
3:01 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 3:03 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
2:52 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 3:26 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
2:42 am
Mon June 4, 2012

Summer Science: How To Build A Campfire

iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Mon June 4, 2012 11:10 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
3:04 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 7:50 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
3:05 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 2:01 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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