NPR: 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. In addition to his science reporting, Palca occasionally fills in as guest host on Talk of the Nation Science Friday.

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 for Science 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.

Palca lives in Washington, D.C, with his wife and two sons.

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3:45am

Wed April 8, 2015
Shots - Health News

Doctors Test Tumor Paint In People

Originally published on Wed April 8, 2015 5:52 pm

Blaze Bioscience is commercially developing the "paint," which glows when exposed to near-infrared light.
Courtesy of Blaze Bioscience

A promising technique for making brain tumors glow so they'll be easier for surgeons to remove is now being tested in cancer patients.

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2:34pm

Mon March 30, 2015
Joe's Big Idea

Want To Do A Little Astrophysics? This App Detects Cosmic Rays

Originally published on Tue March 31, 2015 11:40 am

Smart phones contain a silicon chip inside the camera that might be used to detect rare, high energy particles from outer space.
J. Yang/Courtesy of WIPAC

Scientists in California are hoping to use your smart phone to solve a cosmic mystery. They're developing an app to turn your phone into a cosmic ray detector. If enough people install the app, the scientists think they'll be able to figure out once and for all what's producing the very energetic cosmic rays that occasionally hit the Earth.

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7:20am

Wed March 25, 2015
Research News

Safer Anthrax Test Aims To Keep The Bioweapon From Terrorists

Originally published on Thu April 2, 2015 3:48 pm

Safe and small: The credit-card-sized test for anthrax destroys the deadly bacteria after the test completes.
Courtesy of Sandia Nation

Engineers at Sandia National Laboratory have come up with what they think is a safer diagnostic test for anthrax bacteria — a test that would prevent the "bad guys" from getting their hands on this dangerous pathogen.

Sandia is home to the International Biological Threat Reduction Program. "Our interest is in safety and security of pathogens," says Melissa Finley. Finley isn't a bioweapons expert. She's a veterinarian.

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4:00pm

Mon February 16, 2015
Joe's Big Idea

Climate Scientist Tries Arts To Stir Hearts Regarding Earth's Fate

Originally published on Tue February 17, 2015 12:45 pm

Robert Davies (standing) and the quartet during a performance of "The Crossroads Project." Musicians include (left to right) Robert Waters, Rebecca McFaul, Anne Francis Bayless and Bradley Ottesen.
Andrew McCallister Courtesy of The Crossroads Project

5:58pm

Mon January 26, 2015
Animals

On The Ant Highway, There's Never A Backup

Originally published on Mon January 26, 2015 7:45 pm

A team of Indian physicists has made a mathematical model that purports to explain why ants don't have traffic jams. NPR's Joe Palca explains as part of his series, Joe's Big Idea.

This story originally aired on Morning Edition on January 19, 2015.

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3:34am

Mon January 19, 2015
Joe's Big Idea

Why Ants Handle Traffic Better Than You Do

Originally published on Mon January 19, 2015 12:21 pm

Unless there's a serious pileup, ants in traffic tend to bypass a collision and just keep going. A physicist has found a way to model this behavior with a mathematical equation.
iStockphoto

Could studying ants reveal clues to reducing highway traffic jams? Physicist Apoorva Nagar at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology thinks the answer is yes.

Nagar says he got interested in the topic when he came across a study by German and Indian researchers showing that ants running along a path were able to maintain a steady speed even when there were a large number of ants on the path.

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4:21pm

Tue December 23, 2014
Joe's Big Idea

Could Glitter Help Solve NASA's Giant Telescope Problem?

Originally published on Thu February 5, 2015 1:16 am

Larkin Carey, an optical engineer with Ball Aerospace, examines two test mirror segments designed for the James Webb Space Telescope. The mirror for the scope is extremely powerful, but heavy and pricey.
NASA

NASA is building a new space telescope with astounding capabilities. The James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018, will replace the aging Hubble Space Telescope and will provide unprecedented views of the first galaxies to form in the early universe. It might even offer the first clear glimpse of an Earth-like planet orbiting a distant star.

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5:01am

Mon December 15, 2014
Research News

Why Some Scientific Collaborations Are More Beneficial Than Others

Originally published on Fri December 19, 2014 1:09 pm

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

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

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3:14am

Thu December 4, 2014
The Two-Way

To Search For A New Supernova, Build A New Camera

Originally published on Thu December 11, 2014 2:03 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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3:38am

Mon November 24, 2014
Shots - Health News

Africa Inspires A Health Care Experiment In New York

Originally published on Mon November 24, 2014 5:09 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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12:33pm

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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4:57am

Fri October 31, 2014
Shots - Health News

Look Here: Phone App Checks Photos For Eye Disease

Originally published on Fri October 31, 2014 11:02 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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3:20am

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 9:46 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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1:03pm

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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5:02pm

Sun September 21, 2014
Space

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

Originally published on Sun September 21, 2014 10:41 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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4:33pm

Wed September 3, 2014
Goats and Soda

A $1 Microscope Folds From Paper With A Drop Of Glue

Originally published on Fri September 5, 2014 12:13 pm

All folded up and ready to magnify: The Foldscope weighs less than two nickels, is small enough to fit in your back pocket and offers more than 2,000-fold magnification.
TED/YouTube

We have pocket watches, pocket cameras and now — with smartphones — pocket computers.

So why shouldn't doctors and scientists around the world have pocket microscopes?

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3:27am

Wed August 27, 2014
Shots - Health News

Build A Toothbrush, Change The World. Or Not

Originally published on Wed August 27, 2014 10:08 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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3:27am

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 3:49 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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2:03pm

Thu August 7, 2014
Joe's Big Idea

Transformer Paper Turns Itself Into A Robot. Cool!

Originally published on Thu August 28, 2014 6:43 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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8:35am

Sat July 26, 2014
Space

Close Encounters Of The Radio Kind? Mystery Bursts Baffle Astronomers

Originally published on Mon July 28, 2014 8:50 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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4:45am

Tue July 22, 2014
Space

Rosetta Spacecraft Readies For Rendezvous With Comet

Originally published on Mon July 28, 2014 8:58 am

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

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

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4:27pm

Thu July 17, 2014
Science

To Make A Spacecraft That Folds And Unfolds, Try Origami

Originally published on Thu July 17, 2014 8:40 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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4:57pm

Fri June 27, 2014
Science

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

Originally published on Wed September 3, 2014 4:26 pm

Copyright 2015 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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4:20pm

Thu June 26, 2014
Shots - Health News

A CRISPR Way To Fix Faulty Genes

Originally published on Wed October 8, 2014 4:29 pm

The CRISPR enzyme (green and red) binds to a stretch of double-stranded DNA (purple and red), preparing to snip out the faulty part.
Illustration courtesy of Jennifer Doudna/UC Berkeley

Scientists from many areas of biology are flocking to a technique that allows them to work inside cells, making changes in specific genes far faster — and for far less money — than ever before.

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5:22am

Sat May 31, 2014
Shots - Health News

Phone App Might Predict Manic Episodes In Bipolar Disorder

Originally published on Mon June 2, 2014 8:31 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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5:00pm

Sun May 18, 2014
Humans

The First American Teenager, Millennia-Old And Underwater

Originally published on Sun May 18, 2014 6:28 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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3:37am

Tue May 6, 2014
Shots - Health News

Chemist Turns Software Developer After Son's Cancer Diagnosis

Originally published on Tue May 13, 2014 1:34 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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4:16pm

Thu March 6, 2014
Science

The Scientist Who Makes Stars On Earth

Originally published on Wed June 4, 2014 9:34 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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4:35pm

Wed March 5, 2014
Shots - Health News

To Clean Drinking Water, All You Need Is A Stick

Originally published on Tue May 27, 2014 3:25 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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2:33pm

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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