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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3:38pm

Thu September 5, 2013
Joe's Big Idea

Coronal Holes: The (Rarely Round) Gaps In The Sun's Atmosphere

Originally published on Tue September 10, 2013 5:21 pm

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this picture of the sun on June 18. The dark blue area in the upper left quadrant of the sun is a huge coronal hole more than 400,000 miles across. Coronal holes are areas of the sun's outermost atmospheric layer — the corona — where the magnetic field opens up and solar material quickly flows out.
NASA/SDO

There's a hole in the sun's corona. But don't worry — that happens from time to time.

"A coronal hole is just a big, dark blotch that we see on the sun in our images," says Dean Pesnell, project scientist for NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. "We can only see them from space, because when we look at them [through] a regular telescope, they don't appear."

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3:45pm

Wed September 4, 2013
Shots - Health News

The Inside Story On The Fear Of Holes

Originally published on Thu September 5, 2013 9:25 am

Beautiful or creepy? A recent survey found that an image of a lotus seed head makes about 15 percent of people uncomfortable or even repulsed.
tanakawho Flickr.com

Trypophobia may be moving out of the urban dictionary and into the scientific literature.

A recent study in the peer-review journal Psychological Science takes a first crack at explaining why some people may suffer from a fear of holes.

Trypophobia may be hard to find in textbooks and diagnostic manuals, but a brief Web search will show that plenty of people appear to have it.

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4:31pm

Wed August 7, 2013
Space

Black Holes One Of Space's Great Paradoxes

Originally published on Wed August 7, 2013 5:48 pm

Late summer tends to be a slow month for news. But at All Things Considered, we put on a two hour program, no matter what. So — without a trace of irony — one of our science correspondents offered to help fill some holes in the show with a series of stories about holes. In this edition: Black holes.

3:22am

Mon August 5, 2013
Space

A Year On Mars: What's Curiosity Been Up To?

Originally published on Mon August 5, 2013 10:55 am

This self-portrait of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity combines dozens of exposures taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager during the 177th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars, plus three exposures taken during Sol 270 to update the appearance of part of the ground beside the rover.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Imagine winning the World Series, the lottery and a Nobel Prize all in one day. That's pretty much how scientists and engineers in mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., felt one year ago when the 1 ton, six-wheeled rover named Curiosity landed safely on Mars.

Within minutes, the rover began sending pictures back to Earth. In the past year it has sent back a mountain of data and pictures that scientists are sorting through, trying to get a better understanding of the early climate on Mars.

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5:43pm

Thu July 25, 2013
Science

If You Want A Doughnut Hole, Don't Ask A Mathematician

Originally published on Tue August 27, 2013 11:27 am

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

A program such as ours is timed to the exact second, and occasionally, there are small holes when our mix of news and features doesn't quite fill up our two-hour slot.

So NPR's Joe Palca offered to come to our rescue with some short math and sciencey hole-filling stories, stories about what else - holes.

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3:01am

Wed July 17, 2013
Joe's Big Idea

All Charged Up: Engineers Create A Battery Made Of Wood

Originally published on Wed July 17, 2013 5:08 am

Wood fibers are coated with carbon nanotubes and then packed into small disks of metal. The sodium ions moving around in the wood fibers create an electric current.
Heather Rousseau NPR

The big idea behind Joe's Big Idea is to report on interesting inventions and inventors. When I saw the headline "An Environmentally Friendly Battery Made From Wood," on a press release recently, I figured it fit the bill, so went to investigate.

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3:01am

Mon June 24, 2013
Joe's Big Idea

For Sharpest Views, Scope The Sky With Quick-Change Mirrors

Originally published on Mon June 24, 2013 11:55 am

Before And After: These near-infrared images of Uranus show the planet as seen without adaptive optics (left) and with the technology turned on (right).
Courtesy of Heidi B. Hammel and Imke de Pater

It used to be that if astronomers wanted to get rid of the blurring effects of the atmosphere, they had to put their telescopes in space. But a technology called adaptive optics has changed all that.

Adaptive optics systems use computers to analyze the light coming from a star, and then compensate for changes wrought by the atmosphere, using mirrors that can change their shapes up to 1,000 times per second. The result: To anyone on Earth peering through the telescope, the star looks like the single point of light it really is.

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8:35am

Sat June 8, 2013
The Salt

Asparagus Helps Lower Blood Pressure (At Least In Rats)

In a recent study, rats that munched on asparagus saw their blood pressure drop.
Muffet Flicker

Here's another reason to eat asparagus, in case you were looking for one.

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5:17pm

Mon May 27, 2013
The Two-Way

Beneath A Glacier's White, Researchers See Green

Originally published on Wed May 29, 2013 8:52 am

The small patch in the middle of the image is Aulacomnium turgidum, a type of bryophyte plant. Researchers in the Canadian Arctic say they are surprised the bryophytes were still green, even after being covered by ice.
Courtesy of Caroline La Farge

In the news business, an evergreen is a story that doesn't have to run on a particular day, but can stay fresh for a long time.

This is an evergreen story about an evergreen. In particular, a group of plants called bryophytes. Turns out they may be evergreen quite a bit longer than most people thought.

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6:03pm

Thu May 23, 2013
Shots - Health News

The Weight Of A Med Student's Subconscious Bias

More than a third of medical students in a North Carolina study had a bias against overweight people.
iStockphoto.com

Quite a few medical school students have something against obese people, and most of those who have such a bias are unaware of it.

That's the conclusion of study appearing in the July issue of Academic Medicine. It was conducted at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. The study's author says the subconscious judgments could affect how patients are treated.

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2:46pm

Fri May 10, 2013
Environment

Atop A Hawaiian Mountain, A Constant Sniff For Carbon Dioxide

Originally published on Tue May 14, 2013 1:22 pm

Researchers use the 120-foot tower atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii to collect air samples and measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Mauna Kea looms in the distance.
Forrest M. Mims III forrestmims.org

Climate scientists have a good reason to want to get away from it all. To get an accurate picture of the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere, you have to find places where the numbers won't be distorted by cities or factories or even lots of vegetation that can have a major local impact on CO2 concentrations.

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12:04pm

Tue May 7, 2013
The Salt

Wake Up And Smell The Tuna? Sunrise At Honolulu's Fish Auction

Originally published on Wed May 8, 2013 9:48 am

Among the 50,000 pounds of fish at the Honolulu auction last Friday was this opah, or moonfish, Lampris regius.
Joe Palca NPR

If you are up at 5 in the morning in Honolulu and are wondering what to do, I have a suggestion: Head over to Pier 38 and watch the Honolulu Fish Auction. It's quite a scene.

Getting up at 5 may seem a bit extreme, but for recent arrivals to Hawaii from the East Coast of the mainland — as I was last Friday — the six-hour time difference makes waking up early easy, if not inevitable.

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2:59am

Tue May 7, 2013
Joe's Big Idea

Envisioning The Future With Cori Lathan

Originally published on Tue May 7, 2013 11:04 am

AnthroTronix Founder and CEO Corinna Lathan, at the company's offices in Silver Spring, Md.
Courtesy of AnthroTronix, Inc.

Computers were created to be useful tools, but all too often it's still a chore to get technology to do our bidding.

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3:39pm

Thu April 18, 2013
Space

Kepler Telescope Spots 3 New Planets In The 'Goldilocks Zone'

Originally published on Thu April 18, 2013 10:26 pm

The small squares superimposed on this image of the Milky Way galaxy show where in the sky the Kepler telescope is hunting for Earth-like planets. Kepler, which launched in 2009, has identified more than 100 planets.
NASA

Astronomers have found three planets orbiting far-off stars that are close to Earth-sized and in the "habitable zone": a distance from their suns that makes the planets' surfaces neither too hot nor too cold, but just right.

One of the three planets orbits a star with the prosaic name Kepler-69.

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3:39am

Tue March 5, 2013
Joe's Big Idea

Wanna Play? Computer Gamers Help Push Frontier Of Brain Research

Originally published on Tue March 5, 2013 3:39 pm

This image represents a chunk, or "cube," of brain. Each different color represents a different neuron, and the goal of the EyeWire game is to figure out how these tangled neurons connect to each other. Players look at a slice from this cube and try to identify the boundaries of each cell. It isn't easy, and it takes practice. You can try it for yourself at eyewire.org.
EyeWire

People can get pretty addicted to computer games. By some estimates, residents of planet Earth spend 3 billion hours per week playing them. Now some scientists are hoping to make use of all that human capital and harness it for a good cause.

Right now I'm at the novice level of a game called EyeWire, trying to color in a nerve cell in a cartoon drawing of a slice of tissue. EyeWire is designed to solve a real science problem — it aims to chart the billions of nerve connections in the brain.

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10:58am

Wed February 27, 2013
The Salt

Cheesecake Factory, IBM Team Up To Crack The Code Of Customer Bliss

Originally published on Wed February 27, 2013 11:17 am

A new outpost for The Cheesecake Factory in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
PR Newswire

Consider the following entirely fictitious but totally plausible scenario:

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8:40am

Thu February 14, 2013
Shots - Health News

Scientists Pass The Hat For Research Funding

Originally published on Tue February 26, 2013 1:28 pm

Car commercial? Nope. Jessica Richman, Zachary Apte (center) and William Ludington are looking to the crowd for money to fund uBiome, which will sequence the genetic code of microbes that live on and inside humans.
Courtesy of uBiome

When the X-ray was invented, people clamored to get one. Not for any medical reason, but just to see what was typically hidden inside their bodies.

Something like that seems to be happening with DNA sequencing technology. First it was companies offering to sequence people's genomes. Now it's learning all about your microbiome, the collection of microorganisms living on and in your body.

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6:01am

Thu February 14, 2013
NPR Story

Scientist Gets Research Donations From Crowd Funding

Originally published on Fri March 15, 2013 11:44 am

Vimeo

What do you do when you're a scientist and you have no job and no money for your research? If you're Ethan Perlstein, you try crowd funding. He raised $25,000 to investigate where the drug methamphetamine is stored in the brain.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

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10:04am

Thu January 24, 2013
The Salt

Small Meals, Big Payoff: Keeping Hunger And Calories In Check

Don't eat me all at once.
April Fulton NPR

When presented with a tempting buffet of French food, not overeating can be a challenge. But a new study by researchers in Lyon suggests there are strategies that will help people resist temptation.

People trying to keep off excess weight are frequently told that it's better to eat small amounts of food frequently during the day, rather than the typical breakfast, lunch and dinner. The idea is that more frequent eating will stave off hunger pangs that may lead to overeating.

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3:04pm

Wed January 2, 2013
Shots - Health News

Drug Fulfills Promise Of Research Into Cystic Fibrosis Gene

Originally published on Wed January 2, 2013 7:53 pm

Kalydeco is one of the first drugs that is effective at combating the root causes of a genetic disease.
Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc.

The promise of genetic medicine is beginning to be fulfilled, but it's been a long, hard slog.

Take the story of Kalydeco. It's designed to treat people with a lung disease called cystic fibrosis. While not quite a cure, the drug is extremely effective for some CF patients.

But the success of Kalydeco has been more than two decades in the making.

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3:26am

Thu December 27, 2012
Joe's Big Idea

The Quest For The Perfect Toothbrush

Originally published on Thu December 27, 2012 4:34 am

A drawing from Michael Davidson's 2012 patent for "Toothbrush And Method Of Using The Same."
Patent 8,108,962 U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

There are some consumer products where every year brings new innovations. Computers get faster, cellphones get lighter, cars get new bells and whistles.

It's easy to imagine why inventors are drawn to redesigning these products — the technology for making them is changing all the time.

But what about consumer products that have been around for a long time? For the toothbrush, the answer is a resounding yes.

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3:59pm

Tue December 25, 2012
The Salt

Computers May Someday Beat Chefs At Creating Flavors We Crave

Originally published on Thu December 27, 2012 10:06 am

Does bell pepper and black tea sound appetizing? A computer may think so.
Ryan Smith NPR

Mario Batali, watch your back.

Computer scientists at IBM have already built a computer that can beat human contestants on the TV quiz show, "Jeopardy." Now it appears they're sharpening their intellectual knives to make a computer that might someday challenge the competitors on "Iron Chef."

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3:59pm

Tue December 18, 2012
The Salt

Building A Rover Of The Edible Kind

Originally published on Thu December 20, 2012 12:47 pm

The other Mars Curiosity rover, made of gingerbread and on display on the Caltech campus.
Brian Bell courtesy California Institute of Technology

The folks at the California Institute of Technology have built another Mars rover, but this one will never get to leave Earth. Not surprising, really, since it's made of gingerbread.

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5:03pm

Mon December 3, 2012
Space

NASA Scientists 'Very Careful' With New Mars Data

Originally published on Mon December 3, 2012 6:22 pm

This photo, taken by NASA's Curiosity rover, shows Mars' Gale Crater, where the rover has taken samples for chemical analysis. Scientists believe that at some point in the very distant past, there was a riverbed here.
AP

NASA is finally receiving data on Martian soil samples from Curiosity, its rover currently traversing the red planet. The results from the soil samples hint at something exciting, but rover scientists are making very sure not to raise expectations.

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3:30pm

Sun December 2, 2012
Space

Signs Of Life On Mars? Not Exactly

Originally published on Sun December 2, 2012 5:06 pm

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity cut a wheel scuff mark into a wind-formed ripple at the "Rocknest" site to give researchers a better opportunity to examine the particle-size distribution of the material forming the ripple.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

The director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said last week that preliminary data showed the possibility that the agency's Mars Science Laboratory – the six-wheeled rover that landed on Mars in August — had found signs of carbon-containing molecules.

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2:05pm

Thu November 29, 2012
Space

Space Probe Finds Ice In Mercury's Craters

Originally published on Thu November 29, 2012 5:37 pm

Researchers say they have identified traces of ice in craters on Mercury, seen here in this Oct. 8, 2008, image from the Messenger spacecraft.
NASA

Mercury is not the first planet to come to mind if you were searching for ice in the solar system. After all, the surface temperature across most of the planet is hot enough to melt lead.

But at the poles on Mercury it's a different story. Almost no sun reaches the poles, and as a result, temperatures can drop to less than -100 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, three papers in the journal Science suggest there really is ice at the bottom of craters near the poles on Mercury.

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3:28am

Tue November 20, 2012
Space

Big News From Mars? Rover Scientists Mum For Now

Originally published on Fri March 21, 2014 4:11 pm

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity dug up five scoops of sand from a patch nicknamed "Rocknest." A suite of instruments called SAM analyzed Martian soil samples, but the findings have not yet been released.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists working on NASA's six-wheeled rover on Mars have a problem. But it's a good problem.

They have some exciting new results from one of the rover's instruments. On the one hand, they'd like to tell everybody what they found, but on the other, they have to wait because they want to make sure their results are not just some fluke or error in their instrument.

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5:06am

Sun November 4, 2012
Superstorm Sandy: Before, During And Beyond

Levee Rebuilding Questioned After Sandy Breach

Originally published on Mon November 5, 2012 3:19 pm

A man crosses a flooded street in the wake of Superstorm Sandy on Thursday in Little Ferry, N.J. Surprise coastal surge floods caused by the storm battered Little Ferry, Moonachie and some other towns along the Hackensack River in Bergen County, all areas unaccustomed to flooding.
Mike Groll AP

Every time a storm brings flooding to a large metropolitan area, there are calls to improve the levee systems that are designed to prevent flooding.

But there's a major problem with doing that. "We don't know where all of our levees are," says Samantha Medlock with the Association of State Floodplain Managers.

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4:39pm

Thu November 1, 2012
Around the Nation

In Flooded New Jersey, No Oversight For Levees

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

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

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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3:29am

Mon October 15, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

Spray Lights Up The Chemical That Causes Poison Ivy Rash

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

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

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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