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.

NASA has sent rovers to explore Mars before. But three words explain what makes this latest mission to Mars so different: location, location, location. The rover Curiosity is slated to land late Sunday in Gale Crater, near the base of a 3-mile-high mountain with layers like the Grand Canyon. Scientists think those rocks could harbor secrets about the history of water — and life — on the Red Planet. "It's got a giant mountain in the middle of the crater. There are lots of exposed layers [of...

Transcript SUSAN STAMBERG, HOST: These are tense times for scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. Late Sunday night Pacific Time, they'll learn if nearly a decade of hard work will result in a priceless scientific laboratory landing safely on Mars or if the rover known as Curiosity will turn into a useless pile of junk. Everything depends on what happens during the seven minutes of terror, the time it takes the probe to go from the top of the Martian atmosphere to...

The cool weather in London is good news for the Olympic athletes because their bodies won't need to put as much energy into cooling off. But most of us aren't lucky enough to be headed to London, and we could use some help keeping cool. When you get hot you sweat — but it's not enough to just sweat. To cool off, you need that sweat to evaporate. It's evaporation that drains the heat from your body. To help the sweat evaporate, you want air to flow over your skin — as much of your skin as...

Transcript STEVE INSKEEP, HOST: We're remembering this morning the first American woman to go into space: Sally Ride. She died yesterday in San Diego. Ride made her historic trip into space in 1983 aboard the space shuttle Challenger, a trip that made her an instant folk hero. NPR's Joe Palca has our report. JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Sally Ride was born on May 26th, 1951. She grew up in the San Fernando Valley, just outside Los Angeles, where she went to Westlake High School. SUSAN OKIE: She prided...

Hot tea on a hot day? Not for me, thank you. Not my idea of how to cool down. But I've been doing a series of stories for Morning Edition called Summer Science, where I tackle such subjects as how to roast the perfect marshmallow and what causes that sharp headache some people get when they eat ice cream. For my next installment, Morning Edition Executive Producer Madhulika Sikka asked me to explain why drinking hot tea cools you off on a hot day. It does? "Trust me," she said. "I'm Indian, I...

I have a simple question for you: Do you have a good idea? Something that could change the world? Enter your big idea in NPR's "What's Your Big Idea?" video contest from July 9 to Aug. 12, 2012, and you could win the chance to get advice on making your big idea a reality from a big name in science and technology. And even if you don't win that grand prize, we'll showcase your video on NPR's YouTube channel and on Facebook. Maybe you've figured out how to turn yard waste into hydrogen fuel....

If it hasn't happened to you, count yourself as lucky. For many people, eating ice cream or drinking an icy drink too fast can produce a really painful headache. It usually hits in the front of the brain, behind the forehead. The technical name for this phenomenon is cold-stimulus headache, but people also refer to it as "ice cream headache" or "brain freeze." The good news is that brain freeze is easy to prevent — just eat more slowly. The other bit of good news is these headaches don't last...

It's the epic quest of campers everywhere: How do you get the perfectly toasted marshmallow? In our inaugural installment of NPR's Summer Science series, we gave some guidance on the first key ingredient: how to build the campfire . (Later this summer, we'll attempt to answer the vexing question of how to stave off brain freeze.) For the marshmallow-toasting tips, science correspondent Joe Palca again turned to Daniel Madryzkowski , a fire protection engineer from the National Institute of...

Second of a two-part series. Read Part 1 Every profession has its symbols of success. For opera singers, it's performing at La Scala or the Met. For mountain climbers it's making it to the top of Everest. For scientists, if you get two papers published in the same issue of a prestigious journal like Nature, you're hot. So when an Australian named Scott O'Neill had two papers published in Nature last year describing his big idea for combating a disease called dengue, the world took notice. O...

First of a two-part series This summer, my big idea is to explore the big ideas of science. Instead of just reporting science as results — the stuff that's published in scientific journals and covered as news — I want to take you inside the world of science. I hope I'll make it easier to understand how science works, and just how cool the process of discovery and innovation really is. A lot of science involves failure, but there are also the brilliant successes, successes that can lead to new...

Summer living is supposed to be easy — school is out, the days are long, the traffic eases. But it's not all inner tubes and lemonade: Summer can throw us some curveballs, too. How can I avoid sunburn? What can I do to stave off that brain freeze? Why do my s'mores always burn? Fear not; NPR is here to help. As part of our new Summer Science series, we'll turn to science to tackle these vexing questions, starting with how to build the perfect campfire. Science correspondent Joe Palca ventured...

Psychologists at Purdue University have come up with an interesting twist on the old notion of the power of positive thinking. Call it the power of positive perception: They've shown that you may be able to improve your golf game by believing the hole you're aiming for is larger than it really is. Jessica Witt, who studies how perception and performance are related, decided to look at golf — specifically, how the appearance of the hole changes depending on whether you're playing well or...

Everybody knows that there's just one moon orbiting the Earth. But a new study by an international team of astronomers concludes that everybody is dead wrong about that. "At any time, there are one or two 1-meter diameter asteroids in orbit around the Earth," says Robert Jedicke , an astronomer at the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii. Since most of these objects are too small to see, Jedicke had to use indirect methods to reach his conclusions. He started with a few well...

There's a small spacecraft called Messenger that's been orbiting the planet Mercury for a year. Today, at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, astronomers revealed what they've learned about the innermost planet in our solar system, and some of the new knowledge is puzzling. Maria Zuber, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studied a large crater 900 miles across called Caloris. "The northern half of Caloris has actually been uplifted so that...

My sister is no science writer, and I'm no baker, but recently our worlds melded in a surprising way. Here's what happened: Last October, I attended a workshop on artisanal bread and cheese-making at Salt Water Farms in Lincolnville, Maine. Farm manager Ladleah Dunn introduced us to the concept of making sourdough bread with levain, or starter, instead of packaged yeast. I have to confess that I thought sourdough didn't have any yeast. Wrong. It can be made with a commercial yeast strain or ...

A telescope in Arizona has taken some of the clearest pictures ever of distant celestial objects, including the first images of the innermost planet in a planetary system 127 light years from Earth. They achieved this astronomical tour de force using something called adaptive optics, a technique that eliminates the blurring caused by the Earth's atmosphere. Having to peer through the atmosphere is a major disadvantage of ground-based telescopes compared with orbiting telescopes like the...

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. "They crave [spicy] peppers, they crave sour and sweet things," says Jean Hunter , a food engineer at Cornell University. That means Tabasco sauce was definitely on the menu for space shuttle astronauts. Why this sudden interest in hot peppers? Part of the...

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...

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. Here's why. There's a nasty disease called dengue that is just beginning to show up in the United States. It...

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. The research team was lead by Gil Yosipovitch , a man described as the " Godfather of itch ." He and his colleagues at Wake Forest School of Medicine recruited 18 brave souls to take part in their study. To induce itch, the researchers rubbed their subjects' skin with...

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. At the moment, he's making the second of seven...

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