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.

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.

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.

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.

The search for the massive star explosions called supernovae is about to get a big boost. Astronomers at Caltech in Pasadena are building a new camera that will let them survey the entire night sky in three nights.

The problem with looking for supernovae is you can't really be sure when and where to look for them. Most telescope cameras can only capture a small patch of sky at a time. But the new camera, to be mounted on a telescope at the Palomar Observatory, has a much larger field of view.

There's a project in the neighborhood of Harlem in New York that has a through-the-looking-glass quality. An organization called City Health Works is trying to bring an African model of health care delivery to the United States. Usually it works the other way around.

If City Health Works' approach is successful, it could help change the way chronic diseases are managed in poverty-stricken communities, where people suffer disproportionately from HIV/AIDS, obesity and diabetes.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

For the past decade, scientists have been toying with the notion of encapsulating medicine in microscopic balls.

These so-called nanospheres could travel inside the body to hard-to-reach places, like the brain or the inside of a tumor. One problem researchers face is how to build these nanospheres, because you'd have to make them out of even smaller nanoparticles.

Scientists in Germany have been able to get enough DNA from a fossilized pinky to produce a high-quality DNA sequence of the pinky's owner.

"It's a really amazing-quality genome," says David Reich of Harvard Medical School in Boston. "It's as good as modern human genome sequences, from a lot of ways of measuring it."

The pinky belonged to a girl who lived tens of thousands of years ago. Scientists aren't sure about the exact age. She is a member of an extinct group of humans called Denisovans. The name comes from Denisova cave in Siberia, where the pinky was found.

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 called the seven minutes of terror. In just seven minutes, NASA's latest mission to Mars, a new six-wheeled rover called Curiosity, must go from 13,000 mph as it enters the Martian atmosphere to a dead stop on the surface.

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 poorly.

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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