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 is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.

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, 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's 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. In 2019, Palca was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for outstanding achievement in journalism.

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.

When Morning Edition first went on the air on Nov. 5, 1979, AIDS was an unknown acronym. And the ideas of a cloned mammal or a map of human DNA may as well have been science fiction.

But much has changed in the past four decades. During that time, spectacular advances across the scientific disciplines have had a major impact on the way we live today.

In 1981, Morning Edition aired a story about a strange set of cancers called Kaposi's sarcoma.

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Tiny satellites are taking on a big-time role in space exploration.

CubeSats are small, only about twice the size of a Rubik's Cube. As the name suggests, they're cube-shaped, 4 inches on each side, and weigh in at about 3 pounds. But with the miniaturization of electronics, it's become possible to pack a sophisticated mission into a tiny package.

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A rescue appears to have taken place on the surface of Mars. NASA engineers announced today that they have salvaged - for now - a key part of one of their probes. NPR's Joe Palca has more.

It's hard for doctors to do a thorough eye exam on infants. They tend to wiggle around — the babies, that is, not the doctors.

But a new smartphone app takes advantage of parents' fondness for snapping pictures of their children to look for signs that a child might be developing a serious eye disease.

The app is the culmination of one father's five-year quest to find a way to catch the earliest signs of eye disease, and prevent devastating loss of vision.

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Locusts are not just a biblical plague. They're swarming around the world. Still. Again.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the desert locust situation is serious in Yemen and at the Indo-Pakistan border.

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Many medical tests require blood drawn with a needle. But as NPR's Joe Palca reports, some engineers in California have turned to another bodily fluid for doing these tests - sweat.

What To Feed Locusts

Aug 9, 2019

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Here at NPR, we've been trying to do more stories that answer people's questions about issues they face in their daily lives. NPR's Joe Palca apparently didn't get the memo because he's got a story with the answer to a question almost nobody has - what to feed a colony of captive locusts.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: To answer that question, it helps to go to Tempe, Ariz.

RICK OVERSON: We are inside one of the two main rooms of the locust lab here at Arizona State University. We affectionately refer to it as Hopper Town.

On July 2, the path of a total solar eclipse took it over the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. Even though that observatory is designed to study the night sky, it nonetheless made an idea spot to watch the Moon's shadow sweep east across the nearby Pacific Ocean.

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A telescope now under construction promises to revolutionize astronomy. It's being built atop a mountain in Chile, in the Andes. It's called the LSST. It is a survey telescope taking wide-angle views of the sky. And this telescope is expected to spot rare events that previously have been hard or impossible to find. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca toured the telescope's construction site.

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There's a telescope high up in the mountains of Chile that's looking for signals from the earliest moments of the universe. Finding these signals would be key to explaining how the universe began. NPR's Joe Palca has just returned from a visit to the telescope, and he has this report on a remarkable facility in a remarkable location.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: The telescope is called CLASS. It's located on top of Cerro Toco in the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on Earth. And at 17,000 feet, it's one of the highest telescopes in the world.

When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon 50 years ago, it was an inspiring moment for people around the world.

But another kind of explorer is responsible for much of the modern enthusiasm for space exploration.

"Since the days of Apollo, the greatest adventures in space have been these robots that have gone all over the solar system," says Emily Lakdawalla, a self-described planetary evangelist at the Planetary Society.

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Much of South America experienced a solar eclipse this week. NPR's Joe Palca went to Chile to see it in its totality. And because half of the world's major telescopes are in Chile, he decided to stick around and see what researchers are studying. And Joe Palca is with us now from 17,000 feet.

Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hey, Michel. How are you doing?

MARTIN: OK. So where are you right now, exactly?

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The path of a total solar eclipse passed over a major observatory in Chile this afternoon. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca was there. He saw the eclipse from the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory from where he joins us now live.

Hey, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise. How are you doing?

KELLY: I'm well. Thank you. And I'm thinking, I have actually - I have seen a couple of total solar eclipses. I have never seen one from an observatory, which I'm guessing is a pretty darn good place to see one.

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Later today, an eclipse will sweep across the Pacific Ocean and then pass over parts of Chile and Argentina. One thing that makes this eclipse special is that it's going to pass directly over a major observatory in Chile. And you know who is there right now at that observatory? Our own Joe Palca.

Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hi there, Rachel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm well. I'm going to try to pronounce this - the observatory is called Cerro Tololo, correct?

PALCA: That's right. It's the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory.

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There are human cancer genes in plants. Scientists didn't put them there. They were there to begin with. NPR's Joe Palca recently went to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where he spoke with a scientist who's exploring those genes.

Updated July 2 at 9 a.m. ET

Billions of fish in the Pacific Ocean will be treated to an awe-inspiring celestial event today. That's because a total solar eclipse will be visible over a huge swath of the southern Pacific.

Land animals including humans in Chile and Argentina will also get to observe the total spectacle, as will anybody connected to the Internet. And most parts of South America will be able to see a partial eclipse.

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There's a mole stuck in the ground on Mars - not the small, furry animal but a probe on NASA's Mars InSight lander called the mole. It's a probe that was supposed to go 15 feet beneath the Martian surface, but it got stuck after only going one.

NPR's Joe Palca has more.

A scientist walks up to a cottonwood tree, sticks a hollow tube in the middle and then takes a lighter and flicks it. A jet of flame shoots out from the tube.

It seems like a magician's trick. Turns out, there's methane trapped in certain cottonwood trees. Methane is the gas in natural gas. It's also a powerful greenhouse gas.

So how does it get inside towering trees like the ones on the campus of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee?

It's easy to take corned beef sandwiches for granted. There's no mystery about them. They simply exist.

But corned beef sandwiches, along with everything else in the universe, raise a critical question in the minds of physicists: Why do they exist?

In the earliest moments of the universe, energy turned into matter. But matter comes in two forms, matter and antimatter. And when a particle of matter encounters a particle of antimatter, they annihilate each other — and all you're left with is light.

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NASA has a frequent flyer program that's out of this world - literally. People who sign up to send their names to Mars on the next rover mission will earn 313,586,649 award miles from the space agency. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca has details.

Small drones can do big jobs: Firefighters can use them to find hot spots in blazes, environmental monitors can find the source of hazardous chemical leaks. One just delivered a human kidney for transplant surgery.

But it takes lots of power to spin four helicopter blades fast enough to keep a quadcopter-type drone in the air. Most can only stay aloft for about 30 minutes.

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A NASA probe on Mars is hearing things. And in this case, that's good news. The lander called InSight is supposed to listen for marsquakes, the Martian equivalent of earthquakes. Now it's heard one maybe. NPR's Joe Palca has more.

George Berzsenyi is a retired math professor living in Milwaukee County. Most people have never heard of him.

But Berzsenyi has had a remarkable impact on American science and mathematics. He has mentored thousands of high school students, including some who became among the best mathematicians and scientists in the country.

I learned about Berzsenyi from a chance conversation with a scientist named Vamsi Mootha.

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People who vacation in Hawaii often go for the beautiful beaches and lush rainforests. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca recently stumbled across an unexpected attraction in the town of Princeville. It's on the north side of the island of Kauai. Joe sent us this postcard.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: This is just hilarious. You drive past the golf course, down a subdivision to a dead end and you look in people's backyards. And you see albatross.

CATHY GRANHOLM: Yeah. I have a little melodrama going on in my yard.

A team of astronomers led by an undergraduate student in Texas has discovered two planets orbiting stars more than 1,200 light-years from Earth.

Astronomers already knew of about 4,000 exoplanets, so finding two more might not seem like huge news. But it's who found them and how that's getting attention.

Is there an efficient way to tinker with the genes of plants? Being able to do that would make breeding new varieties of crop plants faster and easier, but figuring out exactly how to do it has stumped plant scientists for decades.

Now researchers may have cracked it.

Modifying the genetics of a plant requires getting DNA into its cells. That's fairly easy to do with animal cells, but with plants it's a different matter.

Opportunity lost.

NASA has officially declared an end to the mission of the six-wheeled rover on Mars. Opportunity lost power in a dust storm last June, and all efforts to make contact have failed.

"Our beloved Opportunity remained silent," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said Wednesday at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "With a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude," he added, "I declare the Opportunity mission as complete."

Many vaccines and some medicines, such as insulin, have to be delivered by injection. That's a pain, both for patients and for health care providers. But two groups of researchers are trying to put some of these medications in pill form to avoid the needle.

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