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

4:20pm

Tue December 25, 2012
The Salt

Computers May Someday Beat Chefs At Creating Flavors We Crave

Originally published on Thu December 27, 2012 10:06 am

Does bell pepper and black tea sound appetizing? A computer may think so.
Ryan Smith NPR

Mario Batali, watch your back.

Read more

3:59pm

Tue December 18, 2012
The Salt

Building A Rover Of The Edible Kind

Originally published on Thu December 20, 2012 12:47 pm

The other Mars Curiosity rover, made of gingerbread and on display on the Caltech campus.
Brian Bell courtesy California Institute of Technology

The folks at the California Institute of Technology have built another Mars rover, but this one will never get to leave Earth. Not surprising, really, since it's made of gingerbread.

Read more

5:03pm

Mon December 3, 2012
Space

NASA Scientists 'Very Careful' With New Mars Data

Originally published on Mon December 3, 2012 6:22 pm

This photo, taken by NASA's Curiosity rover, shows Mars' Gale Crater, where the rover has taken samples for chemical analysis. Scientists believe that at some point in the very distant past, there was a riverbed here.
AP

NASA is finally receiving data on Martian soil samples from Curiosity, its rover currently traversing the red planet. The results from the soil samples hint at something exciting, but rover scientists are making very sure not to raise expectations.

Read more

3:30pm

Sun December 2, 2012
Space

Signs Of Life On Mars? Not Exactly

Originally published on Sun December 2, 2012 5:06 pm

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity cut a wheel scuff mark into a wind-formed ripple at the "Rocknest" site to give researchers a better opportunity to examine the particle-size distribution of the material forming the ripple.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

The director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said last week that preliminary data showed the possibility that the agency's Mars Science Laboratory – the six-wheeled rover that landed on Mars in August — had found signs of carbon-containing molecules.

Read more

2:05pm

Thu November 29, 2012
Space

Space Probe Finds Ice In Mercury's Craters

Originally published on Thu November 29, 2012 5:37 pm

Researchers say they have identified traces of ice in craters on Mercury, seen here in this Oct. 8, 2008, image from the Messenger spacecraft.
NASA

Mercury is not the first planet to come to mind if you were searching for ice in the solar system. After all, the surface temperature across most of the planet is hot enough to melt lead.

But at the poles on Mercury it's a different story. Almost no sun reaches the poles, and as a result, temperatures can drop to less than -100 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, three papers in the journal Science suggest there really is ice at the bottom of craters near the poles on Mercury.

Read more

3:28am

Tue November 20, 2012
Space

Big News From Mars? Rover Scientists Mum For Now

Originally published on Fri March 21, 2014 4:11 pm

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity dug up five scoops of sand from a patch nicknamed "Rocknest." A suite of instruments called SAM analyzed Martian soil samples, but the findings have not yet been released.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists working on NASA's six-wheeled rover on Mars have a problem. But it's a good problem.

They have some exciting new results from one of the rover's instruments. On the one hand, they'd like to tell everybody what they found, but on the other, they have to wait because they want to make sure their results are not just some fluke or error in their instrument.

Read more

5:06am

Sun November 4, 2012
Superstorm Sandy: Before, During And Beyond

Levee Rebuilding Questioned After Sandy Breach

Originally published on Mon November 5, 2012 3:19 pm

A man crosses a flooded street in the wake of Superstorm Sandy on Thursday in Little Ferry, N.J. Surprise coastal surge floods caused by the storm battered Little Ferry, Moonachie and some other towns along the Hackensack River in Bergen County, all areas unaccustomed to flooding.
Mike Groll AP

Every time a storm brings flooding to a large metropolitan area, there are calls to improve the levee systems that are designed to prevent flooding.

But there's a major problem with doing that. "We don't know where all of our levees are," says Samantha Medlock with the Association of State Floodplain Managers.

Read more

4:39pm

Thu November 1, 2012
Around the Nation

In Flooded New Jersey, No Oversight For Levees

Originally published on Thu November 1, 2012 6:42 pm

An emergency responder helps residents of Little Ferry, N.J., after their neighborhood was flooded due to Superstorm Sandy.
Andrew Burton Getty Images

Residents of Moonachie and Little Ferry, N.J., are beginning to clear the damage after their communities were inundated by floodwaters. The flooding occurred when a system of levees and berms was unable to control the storm surge pushed ashore by Superstorm Sandy.

Geologist Jeffrey Mount of the University of California, Davis, isn't surprised. "There really are only two kinds of levees," he says, "those that have failed, and those that will fail."

Read more

3:29am

Mon October 15, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

Spray Lights Up The Chemical That Causes Poison Ivy Rash

Originally published on Thu October 18, 2012 2:17 pm

Urushiol, the chemical in poison ivy, is also harvested from the Japanese lacquer tree to coat lacquerware. Here, a rash caused by lacquerware that likely was not properly cured.
Kenji Kabashima

You'd think that someone who is a science correspondent and is as allergic to poison ivy as I am would have heard of urushiol, but no. I didn't recognize the word when I saw it a week or so ago. Now, thanks to my new beat (Joe's Big Idea), I'm allowed to dig a little deeper into stories, and what I learned about urushiol is pretty amazing.

Read more

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

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

3:07pm

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

Pages