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.

Pages

12:58pm

Thu October 11, 2012
The Salt

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

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

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

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.

Read more

3:17am

Wed October 10, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

Fun With Physics: How To Make Tiny Medicine Nanoballs

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

Álvaro Marín

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.

Read more

2:12pm

Tue September 25, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

Korean Eunuchs Lived Long And Prospered

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

A mural in an ancient tomb in China shows a troupe of eunuchs. How long did they live?
Wikimedia Commons

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.

Read more

3:25pm

Thu September 20, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

Could Genes For Stripes Help Kitty Fight Disease?

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

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

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.

Read more

6:33pm

Mon September 10, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

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.

Read more

3:52am

Thu September 6, 2012
Animals

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

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

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

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.

Read more

2:51pm

Thu August 30, 2012
Humans

Pinky DNA Points To Clues About Ancient Humans

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

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

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.

Read more

3:23am

Thu August 23, 2012
Joe's Big Idea

Telescope Innovator Shines His Genius On New Fields

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

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

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.

Read more

3:31am

Mon August 13, 2012
Joe's Big Idea

Summer Science: What's A Meteor Shower?

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

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

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.

Read more

3:00am

Fri August 10, 2012
Joe's Big Idea

So You Landed On Mars. Now What?

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

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

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.

Read more

6:58pm

Mon August 6, 2012
The Two-Way

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

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

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

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.

Read more

5:34pm

Mon August 6, 2012
Space

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)

Read more

4:37am

Mon August 6, 2012
NPR Story

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.

Read more

4:33pm

Sun August 5, 2012
Space

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

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

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

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.

Read more

6:11am

Sun August 5, 2012
Joe's Big Idea

Scientists Look To Martian Rocks For History Of Life

Originally published on Sun August 5, 2012 11:41 am

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

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.

Read more

7:32am

Sat August 4, 2012
Space

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.

Read more

4:55am

Wed July 25, 2012
Joe's Big Idea

Summer Science: Clothes Keep You Cool, More Or Less

Originally published on Wed July 25, 2012 10:05 am

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

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.

Read more

6:48am

Tue July 24, 2012
Remembrances

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.

Read more

3:20am

Wed July 11, 2012
The Salt

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

Originally published on Wed July 11, 2012 9:47 pm

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

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

Read more

10:51am

Mon July 9, 2012
Science

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

Originally published on Sun August 19, 2012 3:22 pm

NPR

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.

Read more

3:30am

Tue July 3, 2012
Science

When Ice Cream Attacks: The Mystery Of Brain Freeze

Originally published on Tue July 3, 2012 2:12 pm

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

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.

Read more

5:35am

Tue June 12, 2012
Science

Summer Science: The Perfectly Toasted Marshmallow

Originally published on Tue June 12, 2012 8:18 am

Joe Palca's perfectly toasted marshmallow.
Maggie Starbard NPR

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.)

Read more

3:01am

Fri June 8, 2012
Science

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

Originally published on Mon June 11, 2012 3:03 pm

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

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.

Read more

2:52am

Thu June 7, 2012
Science

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

Originally published on Fri July 6, 2012 3:26 pm

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

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

Read more

2:42am

Mon June 4, 2012
Science

Summer Science: How To Build A Campfire

Originally published on Mon June 4, 2012 11:10 am

iStockphoto.com

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.

Read more

3:04am

Wed April 18, 2012
Humans

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

Originally published on Wed April 18, 2012 7:50 am

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

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.

Read more

3:05am

Tue April 3, 2012
Space

Earth Has Just One Moon, Right? Think Again

Originally published on Wed April 4, 2012 2:01 pm

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

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.

Read more

5:09pm

Wed March 21, 2012
Space

Spacecraft's Wild Ride To Mercury Yields Surprises

Originally published on Wed December 12, 2012 6:40 pm

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

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.

Read more

4:30pm

Wed March 21, 2012
The Salt

Into The Wild Science Of Sourdough Bread-making

Originally published on Wed March 21, 2012 4:50 pm

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

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.

Read more

4:55pm

Thu March 15, 2012
The Two-Way

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.

Read more

Pages