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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Space
7:35 am
Sat July 26, 2014

Close Encounters Of The Radio Kind? Mystery Bursts Baffle Astronomers

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

Originally published on Mon July 28, 2014 7:50 am

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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Space
3:45 am
Tue July 22, 2014

Rosetta Spacecraft Readies For Rendezvous With Comet

Originally published on Mon July 28, 2014 7:58 am

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

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

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Shots - Health News
3:19 pm
Thu June 26, 2014

A CRISPR Way To Fix Faulty Genes

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

Originally published on Mon June 30, 2014 6:47 am

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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Shots - Health News
4:22 am
Sat May 31, 2014

Phone App Might Predict Manic Episodes In Bipolar Disorder

Manic, sad, up, down. Your voice may reveal mood shifts.
iStockphoto

Originally published on Mon June 2, 2014 7:31 am

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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Humans
4:00 pm
Sun May 18, 2014

The First American Teenager, Millennia-Old And Underwater

Originally published on Sun May 18, 2014 5:28 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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Shots - Health News
2:33 am
Wed May 7, 2014

Faith Drives A Father To Create A Test For Childhood Cancer

Elizabeth, Samuel, Bryan and Noah Shaw amid Texas bluebonnets on Easter Sunday. Samuel was conceived with in vitro fertilization so he would not suffer from the hereditary cancer that afflicted Noah.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Shaw

Originally published on Tue May 13, 2014 12:32 pm

When Bryan and Elizabeth Shaw learned that their son Noah had a potentially deadly eye cancer, like a lot of people, they turned to their religious faith to help sustain them. But faith is also impelling Bryan Shaw to create software to detect eye cancer in children as soon after birth as possible.

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Shots - Health News
2:37 am
Tue May 6, 2014

Chemist Turns Software Developer After Son's Cancer Diagnosis

Noah Shaw, now 5, shows off his Texas roots at a recent birthday party.
Courtesy of Bryan Shaw

Originally published on Tue May 13, 2014 12:34 pm

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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Shots - Health News
4:14 pm
Wed March 5, 2014

To Clean Drinking Water, All You Need Is A Stick

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

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

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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Shots - Health News
1:33 pm
Mon February 3, 2014

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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Research News
4:04 am
Fri January 31, 2014

Scientists Come Close To Finding True Magnetic Monopole

Originally published on Mon June 30, 2014 9:55 am

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Scientists may have filled in a gap in one the fundamental theories of physics. We've always been told that magnets have two poles, north and south. But theory suggests there should be something called a magnetic monopole, a magnet that has either a north pole or a south pole but not both of them. So far no one has found this elusive magnetic monopole.

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Science
4:40 pm
Tue January 21, 2014

After Hibernation, Rosetta Seeks Its Stone

Originally published on Wed January 22, 2014 1:58 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The European Space Agency's Rosetta mission is back in business. For the past 31 months, the spacecraft has effectively been asleep. Most of its instruments were shut off to save energy, including the radio for communicating with Earth. Mission managers can now start preparing Rosetta for a rendezvous with a comet later this year. NPR's Joe Palca has more.

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Shots - Health News
7:52 am
Sat January 4, 2014

Saving Babies' Lives Starts With Aquarium Pumps And Ingenuity

Neonatal nurse Florence Mwenifumbo monitors a newborn receiving bubble CPAP treatment in Blantyre, Malawi. The device was developed by students at Rice University in Houston.
Rice 360/Rice University

Originally published on Tue April 22, 2014 8:59 am

Good ideas don't only come from experts. An innovative engineering program in Texas has been proving that college undergraduates can tackle — and solve — vexing health challenges in developing countries.

Two engineers at Rice University in Houston are tapping the potential of bright young minds to change the world.

Big Problems, Simple Solutions

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Shots - Health News
2:05 am
Thu November 28, 2013

'The Coolest Thing Ever': How A Robotic Arm Changed 4 Lives

Dee Faught tests a robotic arm installed on his wheelchair in September. Commercially produced robotic arms can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but three Rice engineering students built one for Dee for about $800.
Eric Kayne for NPR

Originally published on Tue April 22, 2014 9:00 am

Three engineering undergrads at Rice University gave a teenager with a rare genetic disease something he'd always wished for: the ability to turn off the light in his room.

It may not seem like much, but for 17-year-old Dee Faught, it represents a new kind of independence.

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Shots - Health News
9:48 am
Wed November 6, 2013

How Pictures Of Infant Boy's Eyes Helped Diagnose Cancer

A milky eye can be a sign of early cancer of the retina.
Courtesy of Bryan Shaw

Originally published on Thu November 7, 2013 8:51 pm

Bryan Shaw never expected to write a research paper about a rare eye cancer.

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The Two-Way
12:30 pm
Wed October 9, 2013

Jupiter Or Bust, But First A Quick Fly-By Of Home

NASA's flight path for its Juno space probe, which is expected to buzz Earth at 3:21 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
NASA

After traveling for more than two years and some 1 billion miles, NASA's Juno mission to Jupiter is back where it started. Almost. At 3:21 p.m. ET Wednesday, the Juno space probe will be 347 miles away from Earth, just above the southern tip of Africa.

(As an aside, at around 11:30 a.m. ET, it was more than 90,000 miles away.)

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Shots - Health News
2:03 am
Fri September 13, 2013

Treating Kids' Cancer With Science And A Pocket Full Of Hope

Dr. Jim Olson meets with Carver Faull at Seattle Children's Hospital in August. Carver, now 12, had surgery to remove a brain tumor in 2012.
Matthew Ryan Williams for NPR

Originally published on Tue April 22, 2014 9:02 am

Try to imagine someone who is supremely calm while at the same time bursting with energy, and you've got a pretty good idea of what Jim Olson is like.

He's a cancer researcher, physician, cyclist, kayaker and cook, not always in that order. He approaches each activity with incredible passion.

But to really understand Olson, you have to watch him in action with patients.

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Shots - Health News
2:45 am
Thu September 12, 2013

Why Painting Tumors Could Make Brain Surgeons Better

Physician Jim Olson cares for children with brain cancer in Seattle. His laboratory studies the gene expression programs controlling neural differentiation, brain tumor genesis and neurodegenerative diseases.
Courtesy of Susie Fitzhugh/Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Originally published on Thu September 12, 2013 5:58 am

Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable things a doctor has to tell patients is that their medical problems are iatrogenic. What that means is they were caused by a doctor in the course of the treatment.

Sometime these iatrogenic injuries are accidental. But sometimes, because of the limits of medical technology, they can be inevitable. Now, a medical researcher in Seattle thinks he has a way to eliminate some of the inevitable ones.

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Joe's Big Idea
2:38 pm
Thu September 5, 2013

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

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

Originally published on Tue September 10, 2013 4:21 pm

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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Shots - Health News
2:45 pm
Wed September 4, 2013

The Inside Story On The Fear Of Holes

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

Originally published on Thu September 5, 2013 8:25 am

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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Space
2:22 am
Mon August 5, 2013

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

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

Originally published on Mon August 5, 2013 9:55 am

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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Science
4:12 pm
Thu July 25, 2013

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

Originally published on Tue August 27, 2013 10:27 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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Joe's Big Idea
2:01 am
Wed July 17, 2013

All Charged Up: Engineers Create A Battery Made Of Wood

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

Originally published on Wed July 17, 2013 4:08 am

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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Joe's Big Idea
3:45 am
Mon June 24, 2013

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

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

Originally published on Mon June 24, 2013 10:55 am

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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The Salt
7:35 am
Sat June 8, 2013

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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The Two-Way
4:17 pm
Mon May 27, 2013

Beneath A Glacier's White, Researchers See Green

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

Originally published on Wed May 29, 2013 7:52 am

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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Shots - Health News
5:03 pm
Thu May 23, 2013

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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Environment
2:17 pm
Fri May 10, 2013

Atop A Hawaiian Mountain, A Constant Sniff For Carbon Dioxide

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

Originally published on Tue May 14, 2013 12:22 pm

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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The Salt
11:04 am
Tue May 7, 2013

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

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

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

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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Joe's Big Idea
1:59 am
Tue May 7, 2013

Envisioning The Future With Cori Lathan

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

Originally published on Tue May 7, 2013 10:04 am

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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Space
2:26 pm
Thu April 18, 2013

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

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

Originally published on Thu April 18, 2013 9:26 pm

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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