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Maroubra’s Mad Scientist – Dr Karl Kruszelnicki

By Dan Hutton on November 23, 2011 in

Photo: Andrew Goldie

During the month The Beast caught up with arguably Australia’s most knowledgeable bloke, Maroubra resident Dr Karl Kruszelnicki…

Where are you originally from?
Sweden. My parents met after the war and we were supposed to emigrate to America but I had a fever from the smallpox infection and we missed the boat. When the fever went away, the next ship that turned up was going to Australia and so we jumped on that. And then we came to Australia and lived in a refugee camp for a couple of years.

Where was that?
At Bonegilla on the border of NSW and Victoria, just near Albury.

How old were you when you left the refugee camp?
About four or five. We moved to Sydney and then down to Wollongong and then I went to New Guinea and did research into hair and wool up there and then I came back to Sydney where I did some of the first music videos in Australia. But after I got ripped off a few I times figured there was no money in music videos, so I got back into science and then drifted through various things like medicine. I moved into the inner west and then ended up here in Maroubra because it’s obviously better.

What do you love about living in Maroubra?
It goes to geography. There are three climates in Sydney. There’s number one, from the beach to the first hill, where you get the buffering effect of the billions of tonnes of ocean water out there. Then there’s a second zone, which is from the first hill for a couple of kilometres. And then there’s the third zone, which is from a couple of kilometres and everything else. By living between the beach and the first hill you don’t get the extreme heats of summer nor the extreme cold of winter.

It rains a lot more though…
You get a different sort of climate with regard to rain. You definitely get more local rain between the beach and the first hill. We’re just putting in a 50,000 litre water tank and, with a bit of luck, we hope to be able to survive entirely off that. They will have to change the regulations though. At the moment with the water out of water tank you’re not allowed to drink it or wash with it, which is crazy.

Do you reckon the desalination plant was a necessary move?
Desalination? According to what I read in all of the literature, desalination is an effective way of getting clean drinking water but very expensive and because it’s so expensive it should be the last thing you do when everything else has failed. Really what you should do is – and I’m going to use a business term here catch the low flying fruit. Encourage recycling and tank water and try to get people to put in dual water systems in their houses. The very last thing you should do is desalination.

Rather than it being a water shortage isn’t it fair to suggest that there are just too many people for the water supply?
That’s one way of looking at it. At the moment the world population is about to hit 7 billion and the rate of population growth is decreasing so it should level off at around 9 billion. It’s still more than the planet can sustainably handle. The best way to drop a population of any country is, and I learnt this as a medical doctor, to educate people, but specifically educate the women. I reckon Australia could maintain its population with clever management of its resources. But we are wasting our resources and burning them up like there’s no tomorrow. And we need to get better with our agriculture so that Australia can be fully sustainable.

Is there anything you don’t like about living around Maroubra?
No. We are incredibly lucky in Australia and being able to live near the beach, mate, all my Christmases have come at once. I’m a lucky boy. The only pitfall is rust. We get horizontal rain sometimes and it affects even aluminium. You wouldn’t think aluminium would rust.

What about mould?
Mould is another part of living here. Living near the ocean is good for your physical health but bad for manufactured objects. And hey, I care more about the physical health of people rather than manufactured objects.

From what I can gather from reading your bio on good old Wikipedia…
Okay, I lied about being the first man on the moon; I lied about that. And I lied about swimming from New Zealand, okay.

I thought so. I believe you spent more than 20 years studying at university?
No, I’ve spent a total of 28 years of education beginning with baby jail, then kindergarten, then primary school and high school and then 16 years of university. I’ve got a degree in physics and mathematics, a Masters degree in biomedical engineering where I designed and built this machine for Fred Hollows to pick up electrical signals off the human retina, and also a degree in medicine and a degree in surgery. And so I’m a member of the appropriate societies and have worked in all of those fields as a doctor, as an engineer, as a physicist and mathematician and have several non degree years of study, just to round me off, in astrophysics, computer science, philosophy and electrical engineering, but I get my real education by reading my way through $10,000 worth of scientific literature every year, which works out to be a pile about a metre thick every month.

And you read it all?
That’s my job. I can’t read everything but I read as much as I can and it’s great. You get different stories from different points of view and you find weird shit as well. I love that sort of stuff.

Have you ever received an honorary degree?
No, I’ve never had an honorary degree. My position at the university is that of a fellow. Now I don’t know if you’re familiar with the academic system but a fellow is like a lecturer except you don’t have to do anything and there’s a better position called a reader and a reader is like a university professor with the status of a professor but once again you don’t have to do anything. And the advantage of not having to do anything is that you can solve problems.

Do you still receive remuneration?
Yeah, it’s a paid position. So in my case what I do is I popularise science at the University of Sydney and as a result one-seventh of all the people who go to the University of Sydney to study science put down my name as the reason why they are studying science. I don’t know what it is about me answering questions on the radio that makes people decide to use their brains to improve their lives and change their careers but something I do does.

What were you doing to pay the bills back in your 16 years of uni?
Back in those days the university was free and so I took various jobs. I drove taxis for 10 years and I was squatting in Glebe so I didn’t have to pay any rent. And then I continued that through when I was studying medicine and surgery, but also I started work on the radio on Triple J or Double J, probably even a single J back then, to earn money. And while we’re talking about education, I think it is an incredibly important thing in our society and that people should have access to a free and high quality education. I was having a talk with the Nobel Prize winner, Brian Schmidt, the guy who discovered the missing 70% of the universe, and he said that if you invest 12 years in education you get half a century of payback. It’s a cheap investment and it’s a really good investment.

What’s with the bright shirts?
It’s called stage clothing. So if you see a country and western singer, they’re not wearing a t shirt and dirty jeans and thongs. Mate, they’ve got a leather coat with leather tassels off it and bright leather pants and a big buckle and snakeskin boots. So this is my stage clothing.

So you don’t get around home in a bright shirt and scorpion belt buckle?
No, no. My wife makes these shirts. Now if you look at this, where on Earth could you get a Dr Zeus shirt? It takes three hours to make a shirt and look at this shirt, it’s beautiful, it’s glorious and it gets your attention. Notice it’s cotton, it’s got long sleeves and not one but two pockets. You try and get two pockets these days, it’s hard.

Are you proud of your work in popularising the term ‘circadian rhythm’?
Yes, and stop, revive, survive. The thing is that when you’re tired and driving at the wheel you are as dangerous as if you are drunk and yet there’s no law against being tired. I mean it’s silly. So it’s more a case of an awareness campaign and I was really proud to be associated with that.

Have you received any feedback as to the effectiveness of that campaign?
It’s impossible to measure unless you’ve got two identical planets, one where you do it and one where you don’t, but I got so many letters, phone calls and emails and conversations from people who after that campaign said they were driving home, felt tired, pulled over and had a sleep for 20 minutes and felt terrific. How many of those didn’t then die in an accident, we don’t know.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever learnt?
All the gold that you will ever touch in your life was made inside a star when it exploded.

You’ve received an Ig Nobel Prize (an American parody of the Nobel prizes awarded for for quirky, funny and sometimes legitimate scientific achievements) for research into belly button fluff…
And why it’s almost always blue, and I’d like to point out that Harvard University showed me so much respect that they flew me all the way from Sydney to Los Angeles to Harvard at my own expense. They would not insult me by offering the money. That’s how much they respected me.

You were also named Father of the Year in 2003…
Well that’s because I’ve got three children, one of each sex.

What’s your proudest achievement?
There are different levels. On a personal level, being a moderately successful family man in the sense that we have three children, they’re all happy and the family’s still together; on an academic level, my Ig Nobel Prize; and on a job level, being a doctor at the kids hospital. That was the best job I ever had in my life but the trouble was I could only make things better for one family at a time and so my best ever job now is working in radio where I can improve many people’s lives by saying get your kids vaccinated – don’t believe this homeopathy crap. So there are a whole bunch of best moments. What I really want though is to have a hot lap around some race circuit in a big V8.

What are your thoughts on the whole climate science debate?
It’s very simple. There is no debate. Global warming is real, we caused it, it’s bad and it’s going to get a lot worse.

Who do you think is more famous, yourself or Dr Karl from Neighbours?
Now you’re supposed to be a professional journalist, right? Didn’t you see episode 2550 where I appear on Neighbours and Dr Karl meets Dr Karl? It’s one of the most telling pieces of the deconstruction of post modernism itself. When that episode got shown in the United Kingdom the ratings for my radio show on the BBC, which I’ve had for 10 years, went through the roof. Mate, I got so much respect. So I have to say that in the UK Dr Karl is more famous and probably in Australia he’s more famous too, but I was able to hang on to his coat tails and get a bit of fame.

You’re a prolific writer of books; how many books have you penned?
I’m up to number 31 now.

And your new book ‘Brain Food’ is number 31?
Yes. And it has two to the eighth pages in it.

Two to the eighth?
Yeah, 256. It wasn’t a coincidence mate.

Can you tell us a little bit about the book?
Oh, the book, that’s why we’re here. I’ve been writing books about science for years and then I started writing books about myths and how people believe all sorts of crap like if you don’t eat enough carrots you’ll go blind or that diet cola drinks will give you cancer or that the world will come to an end very inconveniently on the 21st of December, 2012 with only two shopping days left before Christmas. So I’ve been writing books debunking that and then I was on a bus into town and I heard these three people talking and they were discussing diets and they each swore their diet was the best and all they had to do was each eat as much fat, protein or carbohydrate as they liked. I suddenly thought to myself that only one of them could be right and so I decided to write a book about crazy food diets.

How can Beast readers get their mittens on a copy?
Go to a good bookstore or if you go to and look at where my appearances will be, I’ll be doing some book signings in the Eastern Suburbs where I will suck up to you and write anything you like in the book for you. I’ll be doing book signings at Eastgardens Big W and Miranda Fair.

Do you have a career highlight thus far?
Yeah, I think I was probably the first person ever to say ‘vaginal engulfment’ on TV.

When was that?
It was back in the ’80s on the world’s premiere science show ‘The Midday Show With Ray Martin’, which I appeared on for many years. I’d been okay so long as I stuck to my specialities, which were physics, maths and engineering, medicine and surgery. And one time Ray said, “Look, can you do this show for us on feminism,” and against my better judgment I said yes. It was a disaster. They had Germaine Greer and Naomi Wolf and a whole bunch of real feminists on and so we went into the first segment and Ray kept looking at me and I had nothing to say. When we went into an ad break Ray said, “Are you OK, Karl”, I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah”, lying a little bit, and then we went into the second segment and I suddenly had a cosmic flash, which is really good in real life but very dangerous on live TV because you bypass the censor, and I said, “Ray”, and the TV camera swung on to me and as my face filled 1.5 million TV screens around Australia and to my absolute horror I heard myself saying, “You know, Ray, from what Naomi and Germaine have been saying here, I think the real lesson for us blokes is that we should stop thinking about penile penetration and start thinking about vaginal engulfment”. The TV went to black. After eight seconds they ran an ad for sheep dip. It was all they could find. The camera switchboard lit up and everybody said, “Look, we want him back on, he was the first thing we could understand” and so I was stuck there for the rest of the show. So that’s the high point of my career.

Who are your inspirations?
Gandhi when he says, “If you want change to happen you must be the change”. It’s a very hard thing to live up to and I haven’t succeeded but I’m doing the best I can. Secondly, most of the religious guys when they say good stuff because they’re pretty good, smart, kind guys – the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, all of them, they’re all good so long as you avoid the mean stuff about hating people. Thirdly, Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winner, when he said, “Science is a way to not fool ourselves”. In other words, people say stuff, the world is confusing, you try to find a path but the trouble is now here’s something deep for you – life is not meaningless, it just has a very low signal to noise ratio.

Do science and religion mix?
Life itself has a crappy signal to noise ratio but science is probably the best tool we’ve got. So science will tell you that vaccinations are an absolute yes – there are a few minor problems with vaccinations but overall you’re way ahead. Should you drink your own toilet water or clean drinking water? Once again, science says drink clean drinking water but in some parts of the world they don’t know that. Science and religion are at right angles to each other; they’re completely different. They’ve got no relationship to each other because they work on different principles. One, science, works on proof – I’ll believe anything, just give me the proof, give me the data. Religion works on faith. It doesn’t care about any proof. They’re both perfectly valid systems. At the University of Sydney, one of our top relativists, that is to say somebody working in relativity, was a minister of religion. There is absolutely no conflict between religion and science.

Do you support any charities?
Yes and no. For many years I would give to all sorts of charities but even back then I was seeing that the charities on one hand were ineffectual, they weren’t really supporting the things that they claimed to support really well. Number two, in many cases people were ripping them off and doing a runner with the money. So then I stopped supporting charities. Now I support only one charity. I got some advice from Andrew Denton and he said, “Karl, support only one charity, do everything for them and nothing for any other charity or else you will just run yourself too thin. And try to make sure that the charity you support is good.” The charity I support is CanTeen, for teenagers with cancers. Even though about 10 years ago the accountant did a runner with $250,000, I still support them.

Do you have any advice for youngsters wanting to become scientists, engineers or doctors?
Number one: education is a great investment and you can’t go wrong long term. Number two: the first degree is just the one before the second degree. It doesn’t matter what you study just study something that you love and enjoy it. Number three: get a distinction average. If you are not getting a distinction average you’re doing something wrong. Number four: you might need to be taking a year off so that you can concentrate on having fun, having sex with the wrong people, making all the stupid mistakes and then when you decide to study, study hard. Number five: if you don’t make a mistake you don’t make anything. Number six: if you don’t have plumbers you don’t have civilisation, so trades are really good. A few of my relatives are tradies. If you have philosophers instead of plumbers then neither your theories nor your pipes hold water.

Just six points? Any more advice?
Yes, always park your car with the nose outwards so that you can make a quick getaway. And always drive with both hands on the wheel.

What if you’re driving a manual?
Only briefly take your hands off the steering wheel to change gears and always put your hands back on the wheel. When I was working as a doctor I came across a case of a young man who had lost his arm by driving with one arm out the window.

In an ideal world what does the future hold for Dr Karl?
Travel into space and immortality.