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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3:30pm

Mon August 3, 2015
Shots - Health News

Snail Venom Yields Potent Painkiller, But Delivering The Drug Is Tricky

Originally published on Mon August 3, 2015 5:54 pm

The sea snail Conus magus looks harmless enough, but it packs a venomous punch that lets it paralyze and eat fish. A peptide modeled on the venom is a powerful painkiller, though sneaking it past the blood-brain barrier has proved hard.
Courtesy of Jeanette Johnson and Scott Johnson

Researchers are increasingly turning to nature for inspiration for new drugs. One example is Prialt. It's an incredibly powerful painkiller that people sometimes use when morphine no longer works. Prialt is based on a component in the venom of a marine snail.

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4:57am

Mon August 3, 2015
Shots - Health News

How A Scientist's Slick Discovery Helped Save Preemies' Lives

Originally published on Mon August 3, 2015 9:05 pm

Researcher John Clements in the early 1980s, after he figured out that lungs need surfactants to breathe.
David Powers/Courtesy of UCSF

In 1953, Dr. John Clements realized something fundamental about the way the lung functions — an insight that would ultimately save the lives of millions of premature babies.

The story begins in 1950, when the U.S. Army sent Clements, a newly graduated physician, to the medical division of what was then called the Army Chemical Center in Edgewood, Md. Clements was interested in doing research in biochemistry. His commanding officer was of a different mind.

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5:02am

Thu July 16, 2015
The Two-Way

'Buckyballs' Solve Century-Old Mystery About Interstellar Space

Originally published on Thu July 16, 2015 11:03 am

Harry Kroto, pictured in 1996, displays a model of the geodesic-shaped carbon molecules that he helped discover.
Michael Scates AP

Researchers in Switzerland say they've solved a nearly 100-year-old astronomical mystery by discovering what's in the wispy cloud of gas that floats in the space between the stars.

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5:01pm

Wed July 15, 2015
Goats and Soda

Progress In The Fight Against A Parasite That Causes Diarrheal Disease

Originally published on Thu July 16, 2015 2:50 pm

The Cryptsporidium parasite emerges from the oocyst ready to infect.
Muthgapatti Kandasamy & Boris Striepen Courtesy of University of Georgia

Scientists are reporting progress in the fight against a parasite that's a major cause of diarrheal disease in the developing world.

To make progress against any microbial disease, scientists usually try to find ways to tinker with the microbe's genes, looking for weak spots that could be exploited with drugs.

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4:20pm

Tue June 30, 2015
All Tech Considered

Flood Maps Can Get Much Sharper With A Little Supercomputing Oomph

Originally published on Wed July 1, 2015 12:42 am

This is a calculated flood map for the city of St. Louis. Water depth goes from deep (dark blue) to shallow (white, light blue). Floodwater can come from the Illinois, Upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers, as well as from heavy local precipitation.
Courtesy of Dag Lohmann/Katrisk

A small company in California is hoping to make a big splash by providing detailed flood maps to homeowners and insurance companies. And to do that, the company is using one of the fastest supercomputers in the world.

The company is called Katrisk, based in Berkeley, Calif. Hydrologist and computer modeler Dag Lohmann is one of the company's founders. He says the flood maps the Federal Emergency Management Agency already produces will tell you how prone a particular area is to flooding.

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3:32am

Mon June 1, 2015
Goats and Soda

How A Drunken Chipmunk Voice Helps Send A Public Service Message

Originally published on Tue June 2, 2015 9:54 am

Illlustration by Hanna Barczyk

You get a voicemail message from a friend. Her voice sounds a little ... weird. Like a chipmunk who had too much to drink.

After her message, you're told you can push a button on the phone and hear another kind of message: say, job listings in your neighborhood or tips on how to stop the spread of Ebola.

That's how a new game called Polly works. It was designed by computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University to help get useful information to people with little or no reading skills.

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2:29pm

Wed April 29, 2015
The Two-Way

Welcome To The Neighborhood: 2 Super-Earths Discovered

Originally published on Thu April 30, 2015 8:53 am

An artist's rendition of the HD 7924 planetary system — just 54 light-years away from Earth — shows newly discovered exoplanets c and d, which join Planet b.
Karen Termaura, BJ Fulton UH IfA

Using telescopes in Hawaii and California, astronomers have found two super-Earth-size planets orbiting a star a mere 54 light-years away.

This brings to three the total number of exoplanets around the star HD 7924.

The discovery is important for two reasons. NASA's Kepler telescope has shown that giant rocky planets orbiting close to their stars are fairly common for distant stars. The new finding confirms that such planets exist around local stars, as well.

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7:59am

Sat April 25, 2015
Joe's Big Idea

Hubble's Other Telescope And The Day It Rocked Our World

Originally published on Sat April 25, 2015 12:36 pm

The Hooker 100-inch reflecting telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory, just outside Los Angeles. Edwin Hubble's chair, on an elevating platform, is visible at left. A view from this scope first told Hubble our galaxy isn't the only one.
Courtesy of The Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science Collection at the Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.

The Hubble Space Telescope this week celebrates 25 years in Earth's orbit. In that time the telescope has studied distant galaxies, star nurseries, planets in our solar system and planets orbiting other stars.

But, even with all that, you could argue that the astronomer for whom the telescope is named made even more important discoveries — with far less sophisticated equipment.

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3:45am

Wed April 8, 2015
Shots - Health News

Doctors Test Tumor Paint In People

Originally published on Wed April 8, 2015 5:52 pm

Blaze Bioscience is commercially developing the "paint," which glows when exposed to near-infrared light.
Courtesy of Blaze Bioscience

A promising technique for making brain tumors glow so they'll be easier for surgeons to remove is now being tested in cancer patients.

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2:34pm

Mon March 30, 2015
Joe's Big Idea

Want To Do A Little Astrophysics? This App Detects Cosmic Rays

Originally published on Tue March 31, 2015 11:40 am

Smart phones contain a silicon chip inside the camera that might be used to detect rare, high energy particles from outer space.
J. Yang/Courtesy of WIPAC

Scientists in California are hoping to use your smart phone to solve a cosmic mystery. They're developing an app to turn your phone into a cosmic ray detector. If enough people install the app, the scientists think they'll be able to figure out once and for all what's producing the very energetic cosmic rays that occasionally hit the Earth.

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4:00pm

Mon February 16, 2015
Joe's Big Idea

Climate Scientist Tries Arts To Stir Hearts Regarding Earth's Fate

Originally published on Tue February 17, 2015 12:45 pm

Robert Davies (standing) and the quartet during a performance of "The Crossroads Project." Musicians include (left to right) Robert Waters, Rebecca McFaul, Anne Francis Bayless and Bradley Ottesen.
Andrew McCallister Courtesy of The Crossroads Project

5:58pm

Mon January 26, 2015
Animals

On The Ant Highway, There's Never A Backup

Originally published on Mon January 26, 2015 7:45 pm

A team of Indian physicists has made a mathematical model that purports to explain why ants don't have traffic jams. NPR's Joe Palca explains as part of his series, Joe's Big Idea.

This story originally aired on Morning Edition on January 19, 2015.

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3:34am

Mon January 19, 2015
Joe's Big Idea

Why Ants Handle Traffic Better Than You Do

Originally published on Wed June 24, 2015 10:52 am

Unless there's a serious pileup, ants in traffic tend to bypass a collision and just keep going. A physicist has found a way to model this behavior with a mathematical equation.
iStockphoto

Could studying ants reveal clues to reducing highway traffic jams? Physicist Apoorva Nagar at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology thinks the answer is yes.

Nagar says he got interested in the topic when he came across a study by German and Indian researchers showing that ants running along a path were able to maintain a steady speed even when there were a large number of ants on the path.

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4:21pm

Tue December 23, 2014
Joe's Big Idea

Could Glitter Help Solve NASA's Giant Telescope Problem?

Originally published on Thu February 5, 2015 1:16 am

Larkin Carey, an optical engineer with Ball Aerospace, examines two test mirror segments designed for the James Webb Space Telescope. The mirror for the scope is extremely powerful, but heavy and pricey.
NASA

NASA is building a new space telescope with astounding capabilities. The James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018, will replace the aging Hubble Space Telescope and will provide unprecedented views of the first galaxies to form in the early universe. It might even offer the first clear glimpse of an Earth-like planet orbiting a distant star.

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5:01am

Mon December 15, 2014
Research News

Why Some Scientific Collaborations Are More Beneficial Than Others

Originally published on Fri December 19, 2014 1:09 pm

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

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

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