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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1:25pm

Fri January 27, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

Scratching An Ankle Is Hard To Beat

Now that feels good.
Arman Zhenikeyev iStockphoto.com

There are few more sybaritic pleasures than scratching an itch.

But according to a study just out in the British Journal of Dermatology, the intensity of the scratching delight varies with the location of the itch.

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10:01pm

Wed January 25, 2012
Space

Want To Make A Giant Telescope Mirror? Here's How

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:05 am

Giant Magellan Telescope
Giant Magellan Telescope

The world's largest mirrors for the world's largest telescopes are made under the football stadium at the University of Arizona.

Why there? Why not?

"We wanted some space, and it was just used for parking some cars, and this seemed like a good use," says Roger Angel.

Angel is the master of making big mirrors for telescopes. For 30 years he has been using a method called spin casting to make the largest solid telescope mirrors in the world.

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10:01pm

Sun January 1, 2012
Science

Biotech Firms Caught In Regulatory No Man's Land

Companies making genetically modified animals face a regulatory morass in this country. It's not always clear which federal agency has responsibility for regulating a particular animal, and even when one agency does take the lead, the approval process can drag on for years.

The companies say this uncertainty means their technologies may die without ever being given a chance.

Take the case of the British company Oxitec. It has developed a genetically modified mosquito that the company says can be used to combat a disease called dengue.

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10:23am

Sat December 31, 2011
It Was A Good Year For...

For Lab Mice, The Medical Advances Keep Coming

Takashi Yokoo, head of a project researching kidney regeneration at Tokyo's Jikei University School of Medicine, holds a mouse at his laboratory.
Yoshikazu Tsuno AFP/Getty Images

When scientists want to test new therapies for cancer or heart disease, they frequently turn to mice for help. For most mice, this isn't the best thing that could happen to them. Being a research subject has definite disadvantages, at least for mice.

But most people prefer a new therapy be tested in a rodent rather than making a human patient the guinea pig — if you'll forgive the twisted metaphor.

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10:01pm

Sun December 25, 2011
Research News

The Wisdom Of Trees (Leonardo Da Vinci Knew It)

Originally published on Mon January 9, 2012 11:15 am

Leonardo DaVinci noted that when trees branch, smaller branches have a precise, mathematical relationship to the branch they sprang from.
iStockphoto.com

Hurricanes topple plenty of trees, but when you think about it, the more amazing thing is that many trees can stand up to these 100-mile-per-hour winds.

Now a French scientist has come up with an explanation for the resilience of trees. And astonishingly, the answer was first described by Leonardo da Vinci 500 years ago.

Leonardo noticed that when trees branch, smaller branches have a precise, mathematical relationship to the branch from which they sprang. Many people have verified Leonardo's rule, as it's known, but no one had a good explanation for it.

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1:00pm

Mon December 12, 2011
The Salt

Safety Concerns Linger Around Genetically Modified Salmon

Originally published on Mon December 12, 2011 2:03 pm

This just in: After 15 years of deliberation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to decide whether it will approve a genetically modified salmon for human consumption.

Now there's a catchy lead. But the truth is, the long-running regulatory saga of AquaBounty's application to sell salmon with a growth hormone gene from one fish plus a promoter of an antifreeze gene from another — which help it grow twice as fast as typical farmed salmon — does not seem headed toward a conclusion.

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4:00am

Sat November 26, 2011
Space

New Roving Science Lab Charts A Course For Mars

Originally published on Sun November 27, 2011 3:40 am

The compact car-sized Mars Science Laboratory is due to land on the red planet on Aug. 6, 2012. It is equipped with a suite of instruments to study rocks and soils, and take other measurements.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

It's time to go back to Mars. Once every two years, the orbits of Earth and Mars are aligned just right, so it's possible to send a spacecraft from here to there. That special time is now.

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10:01pm

Thu November 24, 2011
Animals

Beer Or Sugar Water? For Flies, The Choice Is Pale Ale

Flies are attracted to glycerol, a chemical in beer produced during fermentation. Understanding more about the genes responsible for taste and smell in flies could help make powerful insect repellents.
iStockphoto.com

Scientists in California think they've figure out why flies like beer. That may sound a bit trivial, but in fact it could lead to new ways of combating plant and animal pests.

That flies like beer is well known. "The attraction of flies to beer was first reported in the early 1920s," says Anupama Dahanukar. She's part of an inter-disciplinary program involving neuroscience and entomology at the University of California, Riverside. She's been studying how flies recognize chemicals, so answering the question of why flies like beer is actually quite relevant to her research.

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2:23pm

Wed November 16, 2011
The Salt

The Secret To Foie Gras That Keeps Its Fat Is In The Liver

A jury member feels a piece of duck foie gras during a contest of local producers and producers from southwestern France.
BOB EDME ASSOCIATED PRESS

People get very riled up about foie gras, the fatty liver of ducks and geese.

Some are bothered by the force feedings the ducks and geese undergo to produce those fatty livers, which are 6 to 10 times the normal size. Others fear the fat itself – although foie gras enthusiasts insist that the delicacy is "surprising low in bad fats, and high in good fats."

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10:01pm

Wed November 9, 2011
Science

Credit Controversy: Who Made Key Cosmos Discovery?

American astronomer Edwin Hubble looks through the eyepiece of the 100-inch telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles, 1937. In 1929, Hubble proposed that the more distant a galaxy is, the faster it appears to be receding from us, a concept that has become known as Hubble's law.
Margaret Bourke-White Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

A controversy erupted earlier this year over who deserved credit for what many say is the most important astronomical discovery of the 20th century: the realization that the universe was expanding.

In 1929, American astronomer Edwin Hubble proposed that the more distant a galaxy is, the faster it appears to be receding from us, a concept that is known as Hubble's law.

Astronomer Mario Livio has worked with the Hubble Space Telescope for more than 20 years. "So clearly, anything Hubble is of interest to me," he says.

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10:01pm

Mon November 7, 2011
Science

For Copernicus, A 'Perfect Heaven' Put Sun At Center

Nicolaus Copernicus made the astounding claim that Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. He's seen here circa 1515.
Hulton Archive Getty Images

It doesn't happen often, but there are times when a single book turns the world on its head. Isaac Newton's Principia unraveled the mystery of gravity. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species explained how evolution worked.

But before either of these, there was On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by Nicolaus Copernicus. It was published in 1543. In it, Copernicus made the astounding claim that Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around.

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4:00am

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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10:01pm

Tue October 11, 2011
Research News

Pain At The Plate: Heat Increases Pitcher Retaliation

Originally published on Wed October 12, 2011 12:54 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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1:06pm

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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10:38pm

Fri September 30, 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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1:56pm

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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3:34am

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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7:03pm

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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3:23pm

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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10:01pm

Wed August 24, 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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