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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5:00am

Thu August 20, 2015
All Tech Considered

A Lot Of Heat Is Wasted, So Why Not Convert It Into Power?

Originally published on Thu August 20, 2015 12:27 pm

A thermoelectric PowerCard like this one can be used to convert waste heat into an electric power source, Alphabet Energy says.
Alphabet Energy

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.

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4:29pm

Tue August 18, 2015
Science

Scientists Develop App To Turn Smartphones Into Cosmic Ray Detectors

Originally published on Thu August 20, 2015 4:20 pm

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

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4:04pm

Fri August 7, 2015
All Tech Considered

Shall I Compare Thee To An Algorithm? Turing Test Gets A Creative Twist

Originally published on Mon August 10, 2015 1:05 pm

A machine with superhuman intelligence is a staple of science fiction. But what about a machine with just ordinary human intelligence? A machine that's so humanlike in its behavior that you can't tell if it's a computer acting like a human, or a real human?

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3:30pm

Mon August 3, 2015
Shots - Health News

Snail Venom Yields Potent Painkiller, But Delivering The Drug Is Tricky

Originally published on Tue August 4, 2015 10:52 am

The sea snail Conus magus looks harmless enough, but it packs a venomous punch that lets it paralyze and eat fish. A peptide modeled on the venom is a powerful painkiller, though sneaking it past the blood-brain barrier has proved hard.
Courtesy of Jeanette Johnson and Scott Johnson

Researchers are increasingly turning to nature for inspiration for new drugs. One example is Prialt. It's an incredibly powerful painkiller that people sometimes use when morphine no longer works. Prialt is based on a component in the venom of a marine snail.

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4:57am

Mon August 3, 2015
Shots - Health News

How A Scientist's Slick Discovery Helped Save Preemies' Lives

Originally published on Mon August 3, 2015 9:05 pm

Researcher John Clements in the early 1980s, after he figured out that lungs need surfactants to breathe.
David Powers/Courtesy of UCSF

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.

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5:02am

Thu July 16, 2015
The Two-Way

'Buckyballs' Solve Century-Old Mystery About Interstellar Space

Originally published on Thu July 16, 2015 11:03 am

Harry Kroto, pictured in 1996, displays a model of the geodesic-shaped carbon molecules that he helped discover.
Michael Scates AP

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.

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5:01pm

Wed July 15, 2015
Goats and Soda

Progress In The Fight Against A Parasite That Causes Diarrheal Disease

Originally published on Thu July 16, 2015 2:50 pm

The Cryptsporidium parasite emerges from the oocyst ready to infect.
Muthgapatti Kandasamy & Boris Striepen Courtesy of University of Georgia

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.

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4:20pm

Tue June 30, 2015
All Tech Considered

Flood Maps Can Get Much Sharper With A Little Supercomputing Oomph

Originally published on Wed July 1, 2015 12:42 am

This is a calculated flood map for the city of St. Louis. Water depth goes from deep (dark blue) to shallow (white, light blue). Floodwater can come from the Illinois, Upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers, as well as from heavy local precipitation.
Courtesy of Dag Lohmann/Katrisk

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.

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7:30am

Fri June 12, 2015
Research News

Scientists Investigate What Makes Us Itch

Originally published on Fri June 12, 2015 12:23 pm

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Scientists have just scratched the surface of another important problem - why some things make us itch. Today, there's progress to report. Researchers in California have found a molecule that may be crucial for our brains to sense itch. NPR's Joe Palca has more.

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3:32am

Mon June 1, 2015
Goats and Soda

How A Drunken Chipmunk Voice Helps Send A Public Service Message

Originally published on Tue June 2, 2015 9:54 am

Illlustration by Hanna Barczyk

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.

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