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.

NASA's space shuttle may be down for the count, but robotic planetary missions are up, up and away. Before the end of this year, three new solar system probes are due to launch.

Juno To Jupiter

Why Jupiter? Well it's big. "It's the largest of all the planets. In fact, it's got more material in it than all the rest of the solar system combined," says Scott Bolton, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and principal investigator for the Juno mission.

Let's say you're a vampire bat, and you are trying to decide where to bite your victim. You want a spot rich in blood, right? But how do you find such a spot?

Turns out, vampire bats have a kind of remote sensing ability that can tell them where there is a warm patch of skin on a nearby animal. And a warm patch of skin means there are blood vessels just below the skin surface. And now scientists have identified the molecular basis for this remote sensing ability.

Scientists would like to know more about how cells work. But seeing what's happening inside a cell isn't easy. It's dark in there, and even if you shine a light, many of the critical chemical reactions are invisible.

Now, a team of researchers has found a way to reveal the invisible by attaching what amounts to a reflective tag to a chemical called RNA, a close relative of DNA. Molecules made of RNA have a variety of important jobs inside cells and frequently, doing those jobs requires the RNA to shuttle from one part of the cell to another.

Scientists are admitting that a scientific finding that seemed too good to be true was too good to be true. The researchers are retracting a study that claimed you could use genetic tools to predict people's likelihood of living to 100.

Paola Sebastiani and Thomas Perls are both at Boston University. Perls studies centenarians — people who live to be 100 or more. He's not a geneticist, but he is convinced that genes play an important role in how long someone will live, because longevity clearly runs in families. So Perls teamed up with geneticist Sebastiani.

Two independent teams of researchers have come up with the most accurate genetic maps ever made — a feat that should make the search for genes associated with diseases easier.

To understand why an accurate genetic map is useful, imagine you are trying to locate a house in Topeka, Kan., but the only map you have is one of the Interstate Highway System. You could probably find Topeka, but finding the specific house you want would take a lot of trial and error.

Imagine you own a small factory, and you learn that your main supplier is going out of business. What do you do? You put on a brave face for employees and investors, and scramble to find alternatives.

That's pretty much where managers of the International Space Station find themselves.

When space shuttle Atlantis returns to Earth this week from its final flight, NASA will be out of the business of launching humans into space for the foreseeable future.

But soon, there could be more American space travelers than ever. That's because several companies are developing spacecraft that will take anyone into space who wants to go — provided they can pay for the ride.

When you think of animals that sing, birds will certainly come to mind. Whales might, too. But mice? Or fish?

It turns out mice and fish do sing, although "vocalizations" might be a more technically correct way of describing the sounds they make.

Bret Pasch, a graduate student at the University of Florida, says there are plenty of mouse species that sing. "The more we search, the more we find that rodents and other small mammals produce vocalizations," he says.

Installing a pump or an artificial heart is not likely to become mainstream treatment for heart disease. Scientists are more enthusiastic about an approach involving stem cells — cells that can, in theory, be coaxed into replacing heart cells damaged or destroyed by disease.