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.

NPRreads is a weekly feature on Twitter and on The Two-Way. The premise is simple: Correspondents, editors and producers from our newsroom share the pieces that have kept them reading, using the #NPRreads hashtag. On Fridays, we highlight some of the best stories.

This week, we bring you three items.

From Joe Palca, science correspondent:

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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There's something majestic, even awe-inspiring about the sight of planet Earth as a blue disc, hanging in the vastness of space.

The three astronauts aboard Apollo 8 were the first to get that view; if all goes well, later this year everyone will be able to get it on a daily basis over the Internet.

The images will come courtesy of a spacecraft called Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). It's a mission with an unusual history.

A team of Indian physicists has made a mathematical model that purports to explain why ants don't have traffic jams. NPR's Joe Palca explains as part of his series, Joe's Big Idea.

This story originally aired on Morning Edition on January 19, 2015.

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.

Scientists in Scotland have found a prehistoric behemoth: a previously unknown species of reptile that lived in the oceans during the time of dinosaurs. And before you ask, no, scientists do not believe this new fossil has anything to do with the Loch Ness monster.

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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.

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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.

People who grow tomatoes want varieties that produce as much saleable crop as possible. People who eat tomatoes are less interested in yield, and more in taste. The tension between taste and yield can get pretty intense. What's a poor tomato plant to do?

There's now free software for your iPhone that lets you check for early signs of certain eye diseases.

The idea for the app comes from a Baylor University chemist named Bryan Shaw. We introduced you to Shaw late last year.

Whether they admit it or not, many (if not most) scientists secretly hope to get a call in October informing them they've won a Nobel Prize.

But I've talked to a lot of Nobel laureates, and they are unanimous on one point: None of them pursued a research topic with the intention of winning the prize.

A carnivorous plant has inspired an invention that may turn out to be a medical lifesaver.

Nepenthes, also known as tropical pitcher plants or monkey cups, produce a superslippery surface that causes unfortunate insects that climb into the plant to slide to their doom.

Scientists at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering wondered if they could find a way to mimic that surface to solve a problem in medicine.

This Sunday night, we headed back to Mars: NASA's MAVEN spacecraft fired its six main engines, slowing down enough so it could be captured by the gravity of the red planet and go into orbit.

MAVEN, which stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, is a distinctly un-sexy name for a project as cool as a sojourn to Mars. But whatever it's called, the probe is on a mission that should be of interest to everyone who likes living on Earth.

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