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.

There's a building in Mountain View, Calif., where energy-saving technologies of the future are being tried on for size.

Step inside, and the first thing you notice is the building is dead quiet: no noisy air whooshing through louvers.

That's because the building uses passive cooling instead of traditional air conditioning. Cool ground water passes through a system of small tubes running below the ceiling.

Is there ever a time when cool trumps science?

It's a question that becomes relevant when you consider NASA's plans to put a helicopter drone on an upcoming rover mission to Mars.

This is the time of year that ancient Greeks gave thanks to the goddess Ceres for bringing forth a bountiful harvest. Modern planetary scientists give thanks to a different Ceres — not a goddess, but the largest object in the belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Studying Ceres should help researchers gain a better understanding of how our solar system formed, and they'll soon have unique new data about Ceres from a NASA spacecraft called Dawn, which is spending this Thanksgiving heading for its closest, and final, orbit around the dwarf planet.

The Nobel Prize has a special aura. Winning one instantly certifies you as someone who has reached the pinnacle of science.

But what does it take to win the prize? And what does it do to your life? There are different answers for every scientist, of course. But for Nobel laureate and chemist Harold "Harry" Kroto, some of the answers might surprise you.

"I've always felt that the Nobel Prize gives me nothing as far as science is concerned," Kroto told me when I visited him earlier this year in Tallahassee, Fla.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit



And another Nobel Prize was awarded this morning.


Mothers have been warned for years that sleeping with their newborn infant is a bad idea because it increases the risk the baby might die unexpectedly during the night. But now Israeli researchers are reporting that even sleeping in the same room can have negative consequences: not for the child, but for the mother.

Mars is basically a pretty arid place, so it's pretty astonishing that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was able to spot signs of liquid water on the planet's surface.

The average American commuter spends 42 hours per year stuck in rush-hour traffic, according to one recent study.

More than four decades ago, West Virginia University thought it had found a solution to urban traffic woes: It built a transportation system known as personal rapid transit, or PRT.

Instead of riding with dozens of others on a train car or bus, PRT pods carry a small number of people. And instead of making stops, PRT takes you directly to your destination, nonstop.

What if there were a way to take the waste heat that spews from car tailpipes or power plant chimneys and turn it into electricity? Matt Scullin thinks there is, and he's formed a company to turn that idea into a reality.

The key to Scullin's plans is something called thermoelectrics. "A thermoelectric is a material that turns heat into electricity," he says.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit



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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit