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.

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.

Every time a storm brings flooding to a large metropolitan area, there are calls to improve the levee systems that are designed to prevent flooding.

But there's a major problem with doing that. "We don't know where all of our levees are," says Samantha Medlock with the Association of State Floodplain Managers.

Residents of Moonachie and Little Ferry, N.J., are beginning to clear the damage after their communities were inundated by floodwaters. The flooding occurred when a system of levees and berms was unable to control the storm surge pushed ashore by Superstorm Sandy.

Geologist Jeffrey Mount of the University of California, Davis, isn't surprised. "There really are only two kinds of levees," he says, "those that have failed, and those that will fail."

You'd think that someone who is a science correspondent and is as allergic to poison ivy as I am would have heard of urushiol, but no. I didn't recognize the word when I saw it a week or so ago. Now, thanks to my new beat (Joe's Big Idea), I'm allowed to dig a little deeper into stories, and what I learned about urushiol is pretty amazing.

A few hundred scientists gathered in the small French city of Nancy recently to present scientific papers related to a chemical reaction. Now that may seem a bit humdrum and hardly worth mentioning in The Salt, but in this case, it isn't.

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.

Tell people you're doing a story about the life spans of Korean eunuchs, the typical reaction is a giggle or a cringe.

But if you can overcome your visceral response to the topic, a study scientists in Korea did is quite interesting, both for what they found, and the way they found it.

Several scientists have shown that there is a link between longevity and reproduction: the greater the fertility, the shorter the life span. This has been fairly well established in nonhuman animal species, but proving it's the case for humans has been tricky.

At this point it's just an interesting hypothesis, but it's possible that understanding cat coloration could help scientists understand resistance to infectious diseases.

It's human nature to hope for positive results after spending months or even years conducting a research study. In well-designed studies, however, scientists identify in advance the criteria for success, so their optimism won't color their conclusions when the study is completed.

A man is not a mollusk, and many men probably think that's a good thing. And it's not just because a mollusk is a squishy invertebrate with a shell. It's also because for at least one species of mollusk, the males do all the heavy lifting when it comes to childcare.

The species of mollusk we're talking about is Solenosteira macrospira, a marine snail about 2 inches long. These snails live off the coast of Baja California, and during the mating season, the beach is awash with male and female snails in connubial bliss.

Most of us would like to make life better for people in developing countries. Most of us don't do anything about it. Catherine Wong is different. She's the winner of our Joe's Big Idea video contest. She not only came up with a big idea to improve health care for the poor but also built a prototype to test it.

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.

You may not be familiar with the name Roger Angel, but if there were ever a scientist with a creative streak a mile wide, it would be he.

Angel is an astronomer. He's famous for developing an entirely new way of making really large, incredibly precise telescope mirrors. But his creativity doesn't stop there. He's now turned his attention to solar power, hoping to use the tricks he learned from capturing distant light from stars to do a more cost-efficient job of capturing light from the Sun.

NPR science correspondent Joe Palca is on a mission this summer to answer the deep, burning questions of summertime. So far he's taught us how to build a campfire, explained the best way to roast a perfect marshmallow and explored the icy mystery of brain freeze.

The Mars rover Curiosity is beginning its fifth day on the red planet, and it's been performing flawlessly from the moment it landed.

That's been especially gratifying for NASA landing engineer Adam Steltzner. Last Friday, while Steltzner was still on pins and needles waiting for the landing to take place, I told the story of Steltzner's decision as a young man to give up his life as a rocker and go for a career in space engineering.

The newsroom at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is beginning to thin out as the Mars Science Laboratory transitions from an exciting news story, to a long duration — possibly very long duration — exploration of the geologic and environmental history of Mars.

For the reporters still in the newsroom, fatigue is beginning to set in. BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos has been at it nonstop for 30 hours. I feel a bit guilty for stepping out and getting a few hours sleep.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. NASA engineers are still giddy after a successful landing on Mars.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's the wheel. It's the wheel.

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If all goes according to plan, the Mars Science Laboratory, nicknamed Curiosity, will land gently on Mars at 10:31 PDT Sunday night. The rover's entry, descent and landing will last for a total of seven minutes. During that time, the rover must slow down from 13,000 mph to a dead-stop touchdown on the surface of Mars.

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 planet's surface.

On Sunday night, a six-wheeled rover the size of a subcompact car will land on Mars. We preview the mission, from the remarkable landing system to the kind of science the rover will do during its mission.

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.

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.

Hot tea on a hot day? Not for me, thank you. Not my idea of how to cool down.

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.

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 very long — a minute at the outside.

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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