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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6:00am

Sat October 29, 2011
The Salt

Eating Your Way To A Healthy Heart (If You're A Python)

Pythons' huge meals strengthen their hearts, and scientists hope it will help them learn how to treat human heart diseases.

Gabriel Bouys Getty Images/AFP

It's a huckster's dream: "Try the new Burmese Python Diet. No calorie counting or special foods. Eat whatever comes along, up to a quarter of your body weight. Not only is it good for your waistline; it's good for your heart."

Trouble is, what works in pythons probably won't work for humans.

Pythons employ what scientists call a "sit and wait foraging tactic." In other words, they lie around in a Burmese jungle and wait for the food to come to them. And of course, this can mean months between meals.

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12:01am

Wed October 12, 2011
Research News

Pain At The Plate: Heat Increases Pitcher Retaliation

Originally published on Wed October 12, 2011 2:54 pm

Adrian Beltre of the Texas Rangers is hit by a pitch from the Tampa Bay Rays' James Shields on Oct. 1 at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas.

Tom Pennington Getty Images

Richard Larrick has been bothered by something for two decades.

"Twenty years ago, I'd done a paper with some graduate students just showing that in hotter temperatures, pitchers are more likely to hit batters with pitches," says Larrick, a professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

Was it because they would sweat more, and the ball might get slippery and hard to control? Or was it something intentional?

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3:06pm

Wed October 5, 2011
Research News

Researchers Advance Cloning Of Human Embryos

Nature

Researchers in New York are reporting an advance in creating cloned human embryos. The embryos would not be used for reproduction, but rather the creation of embryonic stem cells. Many scientists believe that human embryonic stem cells made this way could revolutionize medicine.

The advantage of stem cells made this way is that they could be personalized to an individual.

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12:38am

Sat October 1, 2011
Space

Flying Telescope Makes An Out-Of-This-World Find

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, known as SOFIA, is a modified Boeing 747 airplane that houses a NASA telescope.
Melissa Forsyth NPR

Astronomers are lining up to use a powerful new NASA telescope called SOFIA. The telescope has unique capabilities for studying things like how stars form and what's in the atmospheres of planets.

But unlike most of the space agency's telescopes, SOFIA isn't in space — it flies around mounted in a Boeing 747 jet with a large door cut on the side so the telescope can see out. Putting a telescope in space makes sense: There's no pesky atmosphere to make stars twinkle. But why put one on a plane?

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3:56pm

Sun September 25, 2011
Space

Launch Logistics: Speedy Rocket, Slow Electronics

NASA's GRAIL mission to study the moon launches aboard a Delta II rocket at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 10.
Sandra Joseph and Don Kight NASA

Weird things jump out at me in press releases.

Take the press kit NASA prepared for the GRAIL mission. GRAIL consists of two nearly identical spacecraft that are on their way to the moon. Once there, they will make a precise map of the moon's gravitational field. Such a map will help scientists refine their theories about how the moon formed and what the interior is made of.

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5:34am

Sat September 10, 2011
Science

Thirsty Birds 'Burn the Engine' In Flight

A Swainson's thrush flies a mock-migration in the wind tunnel at the University of Western Ontario.
Science AAAS

Migratory songbirds like Swainson's thrushes spend their winters in South and Central America. But as spring approaches, they fly thousands of miles north to Canada.

Along the way, these little birds show endurance that would shame even the toughest athletes. They can fly for up to eight hours straight without stopping for food or water.

Scientists know how birds cope without food during the flights: They burn fat. But until now, they haven't figured out the water question. How do migrating birds avoid dehydration after all that flying?

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9:03pm

Fri September 2, 2011
Research News

Why The Trip Home Seems To Go By Faster

Does getting home from your vacation spot always seem to take less time than getting there? A new scientific study provides an explanation for why.
Harold M. Lambert Lambert/Getty Images

In 1969, astronaut Alan Bean went to the moon as the lunar module pilot on Apollo 12. Although the trip going to the moon covered the same distance as the trip back, "returning from the moon seemed much shorter," Bean says.

People will often feel a return trip took less time than the same outbound journey, even though it didn't. In the case of Apollo 12, the trip back from the moon really did take somewhat less time. But the point remains that this so-called "return trip effect" is a very real psychological phenomenon, and now a new scientific study provides an explanation.

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5:23pm

Tue August 30, 2011
Shots - Health Blog

A Remnant From Algae In Malaria Parasite May Prove Its Weakness

An Anopheles albimanus mosquito, which is an important vector for malaria transmission in Central America.
James Gathany CDC

Scientists may have found a critical weakness in Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria. Researchers say the discovery provides a promising target for new malaria therapies.

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12:01am

Thu August 25, 2011
Shots - Health Blog

Better A You Than Me: Scientists Sicken Mosquitoes To Stop Dengue

Researchers hope to keep the mosquito that transmits dengue, Aedes aegypti, from infecting humans using the Wolbachia bacterium.
James Gathany CDC Public Health Image Library

Scientists in Australia are using a bacterium to try to stop a deadly virus in its tracks.

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2:58pm

Thu August 18, 2011
Research News

Don't Throw It Out: 'Junk DNA' Essential In Evolution

iStockphoto.com

There's a revolution underway in biology. Scientists are coming to understand genetics isn't just about genes. Just as important are smaller sequences of DNA that control genes.

These so-called regulatory elements tell genes when to turn on and off, and when to stop functioning altogether. A new study suggests that changes in these non-gene sequences of DNA may hold the key to explaining how all species evolved.

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4:26pm

Tue August 16, 2011
Research News

Cups Down: Scientists Crack 'The Coffee Ring Effect'

Scientists now know why coffee rings have have dark, well-defined edges, as seen in the image above. The research finding may have implications on the development of inks and paints.
Marina Dominguez NPR

A lot of simple things in science turn out to be quite complicated. Take, for example, coffee: you may have noticed that a spilled drop of coffee doesn't dry as a brown blob, but rather as a clear blob with a dark ring around the edge.

It's taken physicists more than a decade to figure out why this effect, known technically as "the coffee ring effect," happens. But now they think they have an answer.

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11:58am

Thu August 11, 2011
Shots - Health Blog

Gene Therapy Breakthrough Trains Immune System To Fight Leukemia

Until now, scientists have had a tough time getting therapeutic genes to go where they need to go.
iStockphoto.com

Any time you report on promising but preliminary results about a new therapy for a lethal disease, you worry that you might be raising false hopes. So be warned: Although this is a "good news" story, it's preliminary. Don't expect to find it at a hospital near you any time soon.

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4:00am

Wed August 10, 2011
Science

Scientists Explore Why Single Cells Band Together

NPR's Joe Palca has the findings of a scientific study that explored how multi-cellular organisms evolved.

4:59pm

Sun August 7, 2011
Research News

'Labs On A Chip' May Detect Diseases In The Field

Can the most modern of technologies help solve the health woes in the poorest countries in the world? Some biomedical engineers say yes. They are designing diagnostic laboratories that fit on something as small as a credit card, and give results in minutes instead of hours or days.

These devices are sometimes referred to as a "lab on a chip." To use them, all you need to do is obtain a drop of someone's blood.

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1:14pm

Thu August 4, 2011
Space

New NASA Missions Will Tour The Solar System

Originally published on Fri August 5, 2011 5:00 am

The Juno spacecraft, seen above Jupiter in this artist's rendering. Juno's primary mission is to improve our understanding of Jupiter's formation and evolution.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's space shuttle may be down for the count, but robotic planetary missions are up, up and away. Before the end of this year, three new solar system probes are due to launch.

Juno To Jupiter

Why Jupiter? Well it's big. "It's the largest of all the planets. In fact, it's got more material in it than all the rest of the solar system combined," says Scott Bolton, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and principal investigator for the Juno mission.

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3:46pm

Wed August 3, 2011
Animals

How Blood-Sucking Vampire Bats Aim Their Bites

Let's say you're a vampire bat, and you are trying to decide where to bite your victim. You want a spot rich in blood, right? But how do you find such a spot?

Turns out, vampire bats have a kind of remote sensing ability that can tell them where there is a warm patch of skin on a nearby animal. And a warm patch of skin means there are blood vessels just below the skin surface. And now scientists have identified the molecular basis for this remote sensing ability.

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2:47pm

Thu July 28, 2011
Research News

Shining Light (Literally) On The Workings Of Cells

Science/AAAS

Scientists would like to know more about how cells work. But seeing what's happening inside a cell isn't easy. It's dark in there, and even if you shine a light, many of the critical chemical reactions are invisible.

Now, a team of researchers has found a way to reveal the invisible by attaching what amounts to a reflective tag to a chemical called RNA, a close relative of DNA. Molecules made of RNA have a variety of important jobs inside cells and frequently, doing those jobs requires the RNA to shuttle from one part of the cell to another.

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12:01am

Fri July 22, 2011
Research News

Poor Peer Review Cited In Retracted DNA Study

iStockphoto.com

Scientists are admitting that a scientific finding that seemed too good to be true was too good to be true. The researchers are retracting a study that claimed you could use genetic tools to predict people's likelihood of living to 100.

Paola Sebastiani and Thomas Perls are both at Boston University. Perls studies centenarians — people who live to be 100 or more. He's not a geneticist, but he is convinced that genes play an important role in how long someone will live, because longevity clearly runs in families. So Perls teamed up with geneticist Sebastiani.

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12:01am

Thu July 21, 2011
Humans

Genome Maps May Spot Disease In African Americans

iStockphoto.com

Two independent teams of researchers have come up with the most accurate genetic maps ever made — a feat that should make the search for genes associated with diseases easier.

To understand why an accurate genetic map is useful, imagine you are trying to locate a house in Topeka, Kan., but the only map you have is one of the Interstate Highway System. You could probably find Topeka, but finding the specific house you want would take a lot of trial and error.

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2:36pm

Mon July 18, 2011
The End Of The Space Shuttle Era

Space Station Ramps Up As Shuttle Winds Down

The International Space Station, seen on Nov. 25, 2009, after space shuttle Atlantis undocked. Despite an end to the space shuttle program, scientific work is just getting into full gear.
NASA

Imagine you own a small factory, and you learn that your main supplier is going out of business. What do you do? You put on a brave face for employees and investors, and scramble to find alternatives.

That's pretty much where managers of the International Space Station find themselves.

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3:59pm

Fri July 15, 2011
The End Of The Space Shuttle Era

A New Frontier In Space Travel: The Law

Originally published on Fri July 15, 2011 4:42 pm

The Virgin Galactic VSS Enterprise spacecraft is seen before its first public landing during the Spaceport America runway dedication ceremony near Las Cruces, N.M., on Oct. 22. Virgin Galactic is one of a handful of private companies that plan to fly paying customers into space.
Mark Ralston AFP/Getty Images

When space shuttle Atlantis returns to Earth this week from its final flight, NASA will be out of the business of launching humans into space for the foreseeable future.

But soon, there could be more American space travelers than ever. That's because several companies are developing spacecraft that will take anyone into space who wants to go — provided they can pay for the ride.

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12:01am

Fri June 17, 2011
Animals

Squeaking Up A Storm: Yes, That Mouse Is Singing

Mighty Mouse? Male Alston's mice use high-frequency songs to entice females.
Bret Pasch University of Florida

When you think of animals that sing, birds will certainly come to mind. Whales might, too. But mice? Or fish?

It turns out mice and fish do sing, although "vocalizations" might be a more technically correct way of describing the sounds they make.

Bret Pasch, a graduate student at the University of Florida, says there are plenty of mouse species that sing. "The more we search, the more we find that rodents and other small mammals produce vocalizations," he says.

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12:01am

Mon June 13, 2011
Humans

All Pumped Up: Can Stem Cells Fix Human Hearts?

Installing a pump or an artificial heart is not likely to become mainstream treatment for heart disease. Scientists are more enthusiastic about an approach involving stem cells — cells that can, in theory, be coaxed into replacing heart cells damaged or destroyed by disease.

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5:22pm

Tue May 31, 2011
Space

NASA Says A Final Good-Bye To Plucky Mars Rover

An artist's depiction of NASA's Spirit rover on the surface of Mars. Spirit became unresponsive in March 2010. NASA announced it had ended attempts to communicate with the rover on May 24, 2011.
NASA

NASA has pulled the plug on one of its two Mars rovers. Spirit hasn't been heard from in more than a year, and now the space agency says it's abandoning hope that it will hear from the rover again.

Any disappointment that Spirit's mission has come to an end has to be tempered by the fantastic success of the robotic explorer. Intended to last 90 days, Spirit operated in Gusev Crater on Mars for more than six Earth years.

Indeed, just landing safely on Mars has to be considered a success, since the red planet has a way of devouring space missions.

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5:13pm

Mon April 25, 2011
Science

Study Supports Grounding Of Planes After Eruption

Last April, a volcanic eruption in Iceland sent a cloud of ash billowing toward Europe. That ash was potentially hazardous for aircraft, and authorities decided to ground all flights — inconveniencing tens of thousands of travelers — rather than risk an accident. A new study suggests that this was the right decision.

Susan Stipp, a professor of nanotechnology at the University of Copenhagen, was one of the people whose plans were frustrated by the volcanic cloud. She had colleagues who needed to get home to Denmark, and samples were delayed en route from Scotland.

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2:03pm

Tue April 19, 2011
Humans

Just Power Through The Late Shift? Dream On

News that air traffic controllers had fallen asleep at their posts has brought a chorus of outrage. But if you think it's easy for humans to stay awake and vigilant when working in the middle of the night, think again. The truth is, there's no one-size-fits-all answer for making sure nodding off never occurs.

The problem is humans aren't nocturnal, but modern society demands some people work at night. So is there anything people can do to be certain they stay awake during the graveyard shift?

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