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 for Science 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.

Astronomers in California are building the largest digital camera in the world. It will go on a giant telescope taking shape in Chile called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope.

LSST is different from most large telescopes. Instead of staring at a tiny patch of the sky and taking essentially one snapshot in time, LSST will take a panorama of every part of the sky...and it will do so over and over and over. The idea is to see what's moving or changing in the heavens.

Editor's note: The Environmental Protection Agency has approved the use of mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia bacteria as a "biopesticide" in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The bacteria keep mosquitoes from spreading diseases like dengue and Zika. Back in 2012, NPR's Joe Palca wrote about scientist Scott O'Neill's 20 years of struggle to make the idea of Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes work. Here is his story.

Scientists in California think they may have found a way to transplant insulin-producing cells into diabetic patients who lack those cells — and protect the little insulin-producers from immune rejection. Their system, one of several promising approaches under development, hasn't yet been tested in people. But if it works, it could make living with diabetes much less of a burden.

For now, patients with Type-1 diabetes have to regularly test their blood sugar levels, and inject themselves with insulin when it's needed.

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Let's say you're a scientist, and you've invented what you think is a useful treatment for pain. But you have a problem. You don't have the money to go through the regulatory approval process. Should you try to sell it to consumers anyway, and run the risk of being accused of selling snake-oil?

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Cassini Plunges To Saturn

Sep 15, 2017

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After 13 years in orbit around Saturn, NASA's Cassini spacecraft is about to plunge itself into the planet's atmosphere and disintegrate. NASA decided to put an end to the mission on Friday because the probe is almost out of fuel.

Cassini has provided exquisite details about the second-largest planet in our solar system.

Sometimes the true value of an invention isn't obvious until people start using it.

Consider what happened to inventor Nate Ball and his powered ascender. About 15 years ago, Ball was an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when the U.S. Army approached MIT with a request: Can somebody build a powered device that can pull somebody up a rope, like Batman does?

There is a lifesaving drug that owes its existence to moldy hay, sick cows and rat poison.

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When you want to change the world, a good invention helps. But that is just the start.

Take the story of Mike Davidson and Mike Smith: They wanted to change the world of dental hygiene with a new kind of toothbrush.

Three years ago, their brushes were rolling off the assembly line, ready for consumers. But then the pair ran into a business buzz saw, and it changed the way they saw the business of invention forever.

A prototype of what could be the next generation of space stations is currently in orbit around the Earth.

The prototype is unusual. Instead of arriving in space fully assembled, it was folded up and then expanded to its full size once in orbit.

Even the most commonplace devices in our world had to be invented by someone.

Take the windshield wiper. It may seem hard to imagine a world without windshield wipers, but there was one, and Mary Anderson lived in that world.

In 1902, Anderson was visiting New York City.

Scientists are about to get an up-close and personal look at the planet Jupiter's most famous landmark, the Great Red Spot.

NASA's Juno spacecraft will be directly over the spot shortly after 10 p.m. ET Monday, July 10, about 5,600 miles above the gas giant's cloud tops. That's closer than any spacecraft has been before.

The spot is actually a giant storm that has been blowing on Jupiter for centuries. It's huge, larger than Earth in diameter.

Twenty years ago Tuesday, a plucky little probe named Pathfinder landed at Ares Vallis on the surface of Mars.

It didn't land in the traditional way, with retrorockets firing until it reached the surface. No, Pathfinder bounced down to its landing site, cushioned by giant air bags. It was a novel approach, and the successful maneuver paved the way for a similar system used by the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity in 2003.

Professional astronomers have been turning to the public for help with their research. So far, these "citizen scientists" have helped characterize distant galaxies and discovered gravitation lenses.

Now you can add finding brown dwarfs to the list. An article just published in Astrophysical Journal Letters describes a brown dwarf discovered with the help of four volunteers through an online crowdsourced search.

The war in Syria is a conflict of the social media age. Everyone — the rebels, the government, ordinary citizens, everyone — has a cellphone.

And that means almost no bad deed goes unrecorded by someone.

NASA's Juno spacecraft has spotted giant cyclones swirling at Jupiter's north and south poles.

That's just one of the unexpected and puzzling findings being reported by the Juno science team.

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Astronomers are offering the general public a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the chance to discover a new planet in our solar system.

Many astronomers now think there may be a massive, undiscovered planet lurking in the far reaches of our solar system. Right now, however, the existence of this planet is theoretical. So the hunt is on to actually capture an image of it.

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the size of the refugee problem confronting the world today. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, more than 30,000 people are forced to flee their homes every day because of conflict or persecution.

But one energetic university professor in Germany decided that bemoaning and hand-wringing wasn't solving anything, so she decided to take action.

The scientific community has been roiled by the Trump travel ban.

Like tens of thousands of residents of the seven Muslim-majority countries, scientists have been stranded — cut off from their labs, worried they won't be able to attend upcoming conferences. And even though the ban has been temporarily reversed by a court order, they are uncertain about what the future holds — and the implications for their work.

Consider the case of Ph.D. candidate Hanan Isweiri. She left her lab at Colorado State University to fly home to Libya after the death of her father.

Imagine being able to collect the DNA of a human ancestor who's been dead for tens of thousands of years from the dirt on the floor of a cave. Sounds fantastic, but scientists in Germany think they may be able to do just that. If they're successful, it could open a new door into understanding the extinct relatives of humans.

Two researchers in Germany are trying to determine the best way to teach the German language to nonnative speakers, and at the same time make life a little easier for the wave of Syrian refugees arriving in their city.

Thousands of those refugees have landed in Leipzig, a city of about half a million, in what used to be East Germany. Some of the newcomers have had a difficult time; there have been news reports of racist animosity and violence against them.

On the top of Hawaii's Mauna Kea mountain Thursday, astronomers will point the large Subaru Telescope toward a patch of sky near the constellation of Orion, looking for an extremely faint object moving slowly through space.

If they find what they're looking for, it will be one of the most important astronomical discoveries in more than a century: a new planet in our solar system.

Scientists in Ireland are using a rather unexpected material to make an extremely sensitive pressure detector: Silly Putty.

The Irish researchers combined the kids' plaything with a special form of carbon, and came up with a remarkable new material — one they think could someday be useful in making medical devices.

The next generation of great space telescopes is heading into its final round of ground tests. The nearly $9 billion James Webb Space Telescope will replace the aging Hubble Space Telescope. It's designed to provide unprecedented images of the earliest stars and galaxies that formed in the universe.

But before the telescope can get to work, there are still a lot of engineering challenges to overcome.

A large space rock came fairly close to Earth on Sunday night. Astronomers knew it wasn't going to hit Earth, thanks in part to a new tool NASA is developing for detecting potentially dangerous asteroids.

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