To say you are a polymath seems an understatement. Did you have this thirst for knowledge from a young age?
Yes, I have always had a sense of curiosity. Someone gave me an astronomy book when I was kid, and I read that and couldn’t believe how big everything was. It started off working its way through the states and then the countries and then the world … I had no idea that there were other countries in the world then … and then planets and the solar system and other stars in our galaxy … and now we’ve worked our way up to 600,000 million planets in our galaxy, and something like 300,000 million to 400,000 million galaxies. There is just this huge amount of stuff that we do not know and will never know, and we’re just on this pathway heading for knowledge.
You’ve been a car mechanic, TV and radio weather and science guru, a doctor at Sydney Children’s Hospital, a biomedical engineer for Fred Hollows, an accomplished author and podcaster … just to name a few of your achievements … but tell us, what did young Karl Kruszelnicki want to be when he grew up?
I had no idea really! I just went along the pathway – primary school, high school and then in those days if you did well you would go to university and if you didn’t do well you’d go into the trades. I had no idea, I just followed along. I sort of floated like a Paddle Pop stick in the gutter on a rainy day! I would just end up in different places and had all these lucky things happen to me – I have been very lucky as I’ve gone through life.
Your career has certainly been diverse – is it true that you were a roadie for Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry on their Australian tours?
Chuck Berry once, and Bo Diddley for several years – every time he would come to Australia and do a tour around New South Wales. I was a roadie for a band in Sydney and they were the back-up band for him, so I ended up being the back-up roadie for Bo, and it was wonderful!
That must have been an incredible experience!
It was. I learnt quite a lot from him. One thing that got me was the way he would always put on an incredible show, even if it was just a small audience. One day I asked him about this and he said, “Look Karl, it’s show business, not show fun. You’re in the business of giving the audience a good performance because even though it might be the 20th or 50th or 100th time for you, for them it might be their first show”. That was an interesting lesson to learn as a roadie, and I have used that advice throughout my career.
Your knowledge and ability to answer incredible science questions with Zan Rowe on Triple J never ceases to amaze me, and the rest of Australia. What inspired you to make science accessible in such a way?
Well the way I got into radio was kind of an accident. I was involved with trying to build an anti-gravity machine in the late 70s, which was an 100-percent failure. I got this idea that we should go on Double J and talk about it, so I rang them up and we talked about it – Double J was a wild, crazy radio station back then.
A few years later, I applied to become an astronaut. I wrote a letter to NASA saying, “I have a degree in maths and physics and engineering, and soon I will have degrees in medicine and surgery, can I please be an astronaut?” And they wrote back saying, “No, we’re all full, go away … and we only employ American citizens”. I then heard that Double J was doing a show focusing very specifically on The Space Shuttle, which I had always been interested in – I thought it was a wonderful project. So I rang up Double J and asked if I could go in and talk about The Space Shuttle. They said sure, and when I went in the guy asked if we could go around to a booth so he could record it. I didn’t realise at the time, but that was actually my test for talking in front of a microphone.
That all went fine, so after that they asked if I could come in to commentate the launch of The Space Shuttle, seeing as I had a fair bit of specific knowledge. So I came in, and as it turned out The Space Shuttle did not launch on its first attempt – they had problems with the fuel cell. Everyone was wondering, what the heck is a fuel cell? So I explained that it’s a box that you put fuel in and it gives you electricity, etcetera. When they actually managed to do the proper launch, I was invited back to Double J for a second time. Once The Space Shuttle got up there, we all came together to celebrate over a cup of tea. One of the guys said he need to drink tea for his kidneys and I said, “I am sorry I think you have it the wrong way around. It’s not that your tea cleans your kidneys, but rather your kidneys clean your blood. They filter your blood and clean one quarter of a tonne of your blood each day, and they pull out 1500 g of salt every day, then surprisingly they put it all back in except for a 1/80,000 of a gram …”. From that they said they needed me for a show called Great Moments in Science, which at that stage was a lesbian sitting topless in the studio on a Saturday afternoon playing music to black-and-white movies on Channel Ten. So that was how that started!
I started doing pre-recorded stories on odd things in science and medicine, and then they suggested I do a radio Q&A – I said ok. After a few years of doing that, a book publisher rang up and said they had been listening and did I want to turn my stories into a book – I said ok. They then sent that off to the ABC TV unit, which was setting up a show called Quantum, and they asked me if I wanted to be a TV star – I said yeah, ok – and it just kept on going. And after 30 years here I am, an overnight success!
Is there one question you’ve been asked by a listener that stands out as the most weird and wonderful?
One day a lady rang up and said, “Hi, my name is Charlene, and whenever I have oral sex with my husband and his penis hits the back of my throat, I go temporarily deaf. So I got all of my girlfriends to check it out with their husbands or boyfriends and it happens to them too. Why?”
I wasn’t expecting that! Did you have an answer?
Yeah! Preload on the eardrum. Do you know the anatomy of the ear?
I know that the ear, nose and throat are all connected …
Yes. So if you go in with a cotton bud down the ear canal, which you should never do from the outside, you would eventually end up at the eardrum, which is very sensitive. When you’re listening to the quietest noise you could possibly hear, the eardrum moves back and forth at a distance equal to the diameter of a hydrogen atom. Which almost certainly means that there are quantum effects involved in hearing. But on the inside of the eardrum, there is a pipe leading to the back of your throat called the Eustachian tube. When you go flying on an airplane and you go up to altitude, the outside pressure is less, so you have higher pressure in this little cavity on the wrong side – the inside – of your eardrum. The trouble is, when you’re coming down to land, now you’ve got low pressure right next to your eardrum, and if you’ve got high pressure in the back of your throat, that then blocks up the pipe, so you end up with pain as your eardrum is being distorted out of its normal position by the air. That is kind of what was happening with the oral sex.
Think about a sheet on the clothesline. When you have its pegged only at the top of the line, the tiniest hint of breeze will blow it this way and that. But if you also then peg it down to the ground, you would need a considerable breeze to make it move. It is the same with the eardrum – if you have pressure on the inside, it is not free to be as flexible or compliant or easily movable as it normally is, and so as a result you end up getting slightly deaf because it’s not responding to minute changes in air pressure from the outside. I haven’t actually tested this in laboratory, it is merely a thought explanation. I may be incorrect!
We can’t wait for Brisbane to host the World Science Festival in March, which you’ll be in town for. This is surely like Woodstock for you? What are you most looking forward to?
Seeing other people – Brian Greene and Robyn Williams and seeing whatever is happening on the days when I am not busy talking! I will be flying up on Thursday night and doing a talk on Friday morning and one in the afternoon, so I have most of the mid-morning to just wander around and see what tickles my fancy.
The festival has been hailed ‘a new cultural institution’ by the New York Times and will bring some of Australia and the world’s greatest thought leaders to Queensland. What does this mean for the Australian science community?
It means that they will get a voice to explain what they do in Australia, some of which is quite complex so hopefully we will have good communicators. So suddenly, what people are doing will become known to the general public, which is always a good thing!
You’ll be hosting a number of events, including Great Moments in Science with Dr Karl and Dr Karl for Kids. Can you give us a sneak peek of what to expect?
Well, I explain why it is safer for a cat to fall from 32 storeys than from seven storeys. You would think that the greater the height of the fall, the greater the injuries, but it is actually the other way around. Part of the secret it that when you fall from a height you are accelerating faster and faster, but then you run into the wind, and the wind sets up wind resistance. The top speed for a cat – which is light and fluffy – is about 100 km per hour, and for a human it is about 200 km per hour. So humans don’t survive very well, but cats do … or better anyway.
I also talk about why when you walk into a room you suddenly forget stuff, why when you go out for a night on the town you find yourself breaking the seal, and the truth about bananas – how radioactive are they? And also, the truth behind kissing! I bust open and make it clear to the public what is going on with kissing.
You will also be the quizmaster for ultimate science trivia evening Let’s Get Quizzical – have you ever waltzed into a pub trivia evening and swept the floor with your knowledge?
No! I actually know nothing about what 12 countries are on The Equator, nor do I know who is in the top AFL team, or who won the last State of Origin.
So not so much pop culture, just all of the science questions. So Let’s Get Quizzical really is the ultimate quiz for you.
It is all about science so I would have a reasonable idea. But of course we all have different areas of ignorance and there are many things I do not know!
There are many, many things you do know though – more than most! How do you retain all this knowledge?
By writing books! You might read something like, you can see the Great Wall of China from outer space. But it took me about 25 hours to write a 3000-word story on that, and at the end of 25 hours I’ve got myself some pretty hard knowledge, which I can then pass on in about a minute or two. And I have just done that over and over again across 38 books and suddenly I’ve built a database of knowledge. Plus, I have been luck enough to have plenty of years of education, plus I read my way through $10,000 of scientific literature every year, which is a pile that is about 1-m thick every month.
How do you focus with so much going through your mind?
Well, it is hard not to be diverted by the latest shiny little bauble of knowledge that appears on the ocean of darkness in front of you, but you give it a go. At the moment I am doing a story on the gravitational waves and how amazing it was that they discovered them. It is the beginning of a new astronomy, and we can learn so much more about the universe around us.