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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 is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.

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, 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's 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. In 2019, Palca was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for outstanding achievement in journalism.

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.

Viral infections can be very hard to treat. Just ask anyone who has a bad case of the flu.

But that's not deterring research groups around the world from looking for an effective therapy against the new coronavirus, although they know it won't be easy.

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More disturbing numbers about the coronavirus. Today, China's National Health Commission disclosed that 1,700 medical workers are among those who've contracted the disease, which is now known as COVID-19. Six of those workers have died. They're among the more than 5,000 new coronavirus cases reported in just the past 24 hours. Labs all over the world are racing to design diagnostic tests, vaccines, new therapies all to deal with the virus. NPR's Joe Palca is here to talk about a promising pilot program happening here in the U.S. Hi, Joe.

Right now scientists are trying to accomplish something that was inconceivable a decade ago: create a vaccine against a previously unknown virus rapidly enough to help end an outbreak of that virus. In this case, they're trying to stop the spread of the new coronavirus that has already infected tens of thousands of people, mainly in China, and given rise to a respiratory condition now known as COVID-19.

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This next story is about the anchovy and the whale - specifically about why an agile anchovy can't escape from a ponderous whale. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca reports that as with so many things in life, the answer is timing.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Whale biologist David Cade, who recently graduated from Stanford University, says there's no question humpback whales enjoy a tasty meal of anchovies, but they're not always successful at getting one.

The Year In Science News

Dec 26, 2019

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All right, astronomers have known about black holes for a long time, but they never had a picture of one until this year. We asked NPR science correspondent Joe Palca what were the three biggest science stories of the year, and here's what he said.

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There are rare chemical elements, and then there is tennessine. Only a couple dozen atoms of the stuff have ever existed. For the 150th anniversary of the periodic table, NPR science correspondent Joe Palca has the convoluted story of one of the latest elements to be added.

There's a mole on Mars that's making NASA engineers tear their hair out.

No, they haven't discovered a small, insectivorous mammal on the red planet.

The mole vexing engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena is a scientific instrument known as the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, or HP3 — or just "the mole" — carried on NASA's InSight probe that landed on Mars a year ago.

It's not easy to treat viral infections. Just ask anyone with a bad cold or a case of the flu.

But scientists in Massachusetts think they may have a new way to stop viruses from making people sick by using what amounts to a pair of molecular scissors, known as CRISPR.

It's a gene editing tool based on a molecule that occurs naturally in microorganisms.

A New Way To Stop Viruses

Nov 13, 2019

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It is not easy to treat viral infections, but scientists in Massachusetts think they may have found a new way to stop viruses from making people sick by using what amounts to a pair of molecular scissors. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca explains.

When Morning Edition first went on the air on Nov. 5, 1979, AIDS was an unknown acronym. And the ideas of a cloned mammal or a map of human DNA may as well have been science fiction.

But much has changed in the past four decades. During that time, spectacular advances across the scientific disciplines have had a major impact on the way we live today.

In 1981, Morning Edition aired a story about a strange set of cancers called Kaposi's sarcoma.

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Tiny satellites are taking on a big-time role in space exploration.

CubeSats are small, only about twice the size of a Rubik's Cube. As the name suggests, they're cube-shaped, 4 inches on each side, and weigh in at about 3 pounds. But with the miniaturization of electronics, it's become possible to pack a sophisticated mission into a tiny package.

It's hard for doctors to do a thorough eye exam on infants. They tend to wiggle around — the babies, that is, not the doctors.

But a new smartphone app takes advantage of parents' fondness for snapping pictures of their children to look for signs that a child might be developing a serious eye disease.

The app is the culmination of one father's five-year quest to find a way to catch the earliest signs of eye disease, and prevent devastating loss of vision.

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Locusts are not just a biblical plague. They're swarming around the world. Still. Again.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the desert locust situation is serious in Yemen and at the Indo-Pakistan border.

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Many medical tests require blood drawn with a needle. But as NPR's Joe Palca reports, some engineers in California have turned to another bodily fluid for doing these tests - sweat.

What To Feed Locusts

Aug 9, 2019

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Here at NPR, we've been trying to do more stories that answer people's questions about issues they face in their daily lives. NPR's Joe Palca apparently didn't get the memo because he's got a story with the answer to a question almost nobody has - what to feed a colony of captive locusts.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: To answer that question, it helps to go to Tempe, Ariz.

RICK OVERSON: We are inside one of the two main rooms of the locust lab here at Arizona State University. We affectionately refer to it as Hopper Town.

On July 2, the path of a total solar eclipse took it over the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. Even though that observatory is designed to study the night sky, it nonetheless made an idea spot to watch the Moon's shadow sweep east across the nearby Pacific Ocean.

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A telescope now under construction promises to revolutionize astronomy. It's being built atop a mountain in Chile, in the Andes. It's called the LSST. It is a survey telescope taking wide-angle views of the sky. And this telescope is expected to spot rare events that previously have been hard or impossible to find. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca toured the telescope's construction site.

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There's a telescope high up in the mountains of Chile that's looking for signals from the earliest moments of the universe. Finding these signals would be key to explaining how the universe began. NPR's Joe Palca has just returned from a visit to the telescope, and he has this report on a remarkable facility in a remarkable location.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: The telescope is called CLASS. It's located on top of Cerro Toco in the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on Earth. And at 17,000 feet, it's one of the highest telescopes in the world.

When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon 50 years ago, it was an inspiring moment for people around the world.

But another kind of explorer is responsible for much of the modern enthusiasm for space exploration.

"Since the days of Apollo, the greatest adventures in space have been these robots that have gone all over the solar system," says Emily Lakdawalla, a self-described planetary evangelist at the Planetary Society.

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Much of South America experienced a solar eclipse this week. NPR's Joe Palca went to Chile to see it in its totality. And because half of the world's major telescopes are in Chile, he decided to stick around and see what researchers are studying. And Joe Palca is with us now from 17,000 feet.

Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hey, Michel. How are you doing?

MARTIN: OK. So where are you right now, exactly?

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There are human cancer genes in plants. Scientists didn't put them there. They were there to begin with. NPR's Joe Palca recently went to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where he spoke with a scientist who's exploring those genes.

Updated July 2 at 9 a.m. ET

Billions of fish in the Pacific Ocean will be treated to an awe-inspiring celestial event today. That's because a total solar eclipse will be visible over a huge swath of the southern Pacific.

Land animals including humans in Chile and Argentina will also get to observe the total spectacle, as will anybody connected to the Internet. And most parts of South America will be able to see a partial eclipse.

A scientist walks up to a cottonwood tree, sticks a hollow tube in the middle and then takes a lighter and flicks it. A jet of flame shoots out from the tube.

It seems like a magician's trick. Turns out, there's methane trapped in certain cottonwood trees. Methane is the gas in natural gas. It's also a powerful greenhouse gas.

So how does it get inside towering trees like the ones on the campus of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee?

It's easy to take corned beef sandwiches for granted. There's no mystery about them. They simply exist.

But corned beef sandwiches, along with everything else in the universe, raise a critical question in the minds of physicists: Why do they exist?

In the earliest moments of the universe, energy turned into matter. But matter comes in two forms, matter and antimatter. And when a particle of matter encounters a particle of antimatter, they annihilate each other — and all you're left with is light.

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