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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Goats and Soda
4:23 pm
Wed September 3, 2014

A $1 Microscope Folds From Paper With A Drop Of Glue

All folded up and ready to magnify: The Foldscope weighs less than two nickels, is small enough to fit in your back pocket and offers more than 2,000-fold magnification.
TED/YouTube

Originally published on Fri September 5, 2014 9:13 am

We have pocket watches, pocket cameras and now — with smartphones — pocket computers.

So why shouldn't doctors and scientists around the world have pocket microscopes?

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Joe's Big Idea
11:31 am
Thu August 7, 2014

Transformer Paper Turns Itself Into A Robot. Cool!

This little guy changes from flat sheet of paper to critter in about four minutes.
Seth Kroll/Wyss Institute

Originally published on Thu August 28, 2014 3:43 pm

Every so often, a scientific paper just begs for a sexy headline.

Consider this study in the current issue of Science: "A Method for Building Self-folding Machines." A bit bland, you'll no doubt agree. A Real-Life, Origami-Inspired Transformer is how the journal's public affairs department referred to it. Now that's more like it.

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Science
2:38 pm
Thu July 17, 2014

To Make A Spacecraft That Folds And Unfolds, Try Origami

Originally published on Thu July 17, 2014 5:40 pm

Scientists and engineers at NASA are using origami techniques to help solve a fundamental dilemma facing spacecraft designers: How do you take a big object, pack it into a small container for rocket launch, and then unpack it again once it arrives in space — making sure nothing breaks in the process.

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Shots - Health News
2:11 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 12:25 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
11:31 am
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

Originally published on Mon February 3, 2014 11:33 am

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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Shots - Health News
8:28 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 6:51 pm

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

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Shots - Health News
1:09 pm
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 7:02 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
9:52 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 3:58 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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Shots - Health News
9:52 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 3:58 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.

Read more
Shots - Health News
1:48 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 6:25 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
9:17 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 7:55 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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Food
10:07 am
Thu January 24, 2013

Small Meals, Big Payoff: Keeping Hunger And Calories In Check

Don't eat me all at once.
April Fulton NPR

Originally published on Thu January 24, 2013 7:04 am

When presented with a tempting buffet of French food, not overeating can be a challenge. But a new study by researchers in Lyon suggests there are strategies that will help people resist temptation.

People trying to keep off excess weight are frequently told that it's better to eat small amounts of food frequently during the day, rather than the typical breakfast, lunch and dinner. The idea is that more frequent eating will stave off hunger pangs that may lead to overeating.

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NPR science
8:52 pm
Mon December 3, 2012

NASA Scientists 'Very Careful' With New Mars Data

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

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

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.

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NPR Science
11:12 am
Thu November 29, 2012

Space probe finds ice in Mercury's craters

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

Originally published on Thu November 29, 2012 2:37 pm

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.

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NPR science
6:29 am
Tue November 20, 2012

Big News From Mars? Rover Scientists Mum For Now

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

Originally published on Fri March 21, 2014 1:11 pm

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.

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