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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The Salt
4:00 pm
Thu February 23, 2012

Why Astronauts Crave Tabasco Sauce

Astronauts may have a particular affinity for Tabasco sauce in space because their sense of smell and taste is distorted.
John Rose NPR

If you think astronauts just want dehydrated dinners and freeze-dried ice cream, think again. After a few days in space, they start reaching for the hot sauce.

In fact, they may start craving foods they didn't necessarily like on Earth.

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Space
5:48 pm
Tue February 14, 2012

New Telescope To Make 10-Year Time Lapse Of Sky

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, seen in this artist's rendering, will be built on the peak of the Cerro Pachon mountain in Chile and will survey every patch of the night sky. The data the telescope will collect will allow researchers to "answer fundamentally different questions about the universe," says one astronomer.
Todd Mason LSST Corp.

Originally published on Fri January 10, 2014 5:30 pm

Every 10 years, about two dozen of this country's top astronomers and astrophysicists get together under the auspices of the National Research Council and make a wish list. The list has on it the new telescopes these astronomers would most like to see built. At the last gathering, they said, in essence, "We most want the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope."

Here's why. A synoptic survey is a comprehensive map of every square inch of the night sky. The Large Synoptic Survey — LSST — will do that multiple times.

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Research News
6:12 am
Sat February 11, 2012

Deconstructing Dengue: How Old Is That Mosquito?

Mosquitoes like this one can carry the virus that causes dengue fever.
James Gathany CDC Public Health Image Library

Originally published on Sat February 11, 2012 11:46 am

Scientists can spend years working on problems that at first may seem esoteric and rather pointless. For example, there's a scientist in Arizona who's trying to find a way to measure the age of wild mosquitoes.

As weird as that sounds, the work is important for what it will tell scientists about the natural history of mosquitoes. It also could have major implications for human health.

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Shots - Health Blog
3:25 pm
Fri January 27, 2012

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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Space
12:01 am
Thu January 26, 2012

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

Giant Magellan Telescope
Giant Magellan Telescope

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 11:05 am

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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Science
12:01 am
Mon January 2, 2012

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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It Was A Good Year For...
12:23 pm
Sat December 31, 2011

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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Research News
12:01 am
Mon December 26, 2011

The Wisdom Of Trees (Leonardo Da Vinci Knew It)

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

Originally published on Mon January 9, 2012 1:15 pm

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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The Salt
3:00 pm
Mon December 12, 2011

Safety Concerns Linger Around Genetically Modified Salmon

Originally published on Mon December 12, 2011 4:03 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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Space
6:00 am
Sat November 26, 2011

New Roving Science Lab Charts A Course For Mars

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

Originally published on Sun November 27, 2011 5:40 am

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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Animals
12:01 am
Fri November 25, 2011

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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The Salt
4:23 pm
Wed November 16, 2011

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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Science
12:01 am
Thu November 10, 2011

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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Science
12:01 am
Tue November 8, 2011

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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The Salt
6:00 am
Sat October 29, 2011

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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