Meet ‘sleek geek’ Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. He has several degrees and has done everything from building an electroretinograph to driving a cab. But can he help the rest of the world make science and engineering more popular?
Dr Karl - “just call me Karl” - is talking about his washing. He insists he likes hanging it out. He doesn’t use an algorithm, but he does have a system - inside out lets the sunlight in.
It’s difficult to know how to describe Dr Karl Kruszelnicki (pronounced Kru-shel-nitski). Nowadays, the willowy wacky-shirted doctor, widely known as ‘Dr Karl’, is a science commentator and writer working on his 39th book. He is also an Australian national treasure with an Ig Nobel Prize and an asteroid named after him, but more about those later.
Kruszelnicki has been many things. “If there was a Venn Diagram of my careers, none of them cross over. I don’t exist.”
Despite having several degrees - Physics and Maths, Medicine, Surgery, a Masters in Biomedical Engineering and a qualifying one in Astrophysics - he calls himself a “generalist,” compared to a ‘real’ mathematician in the room. Yet that’s not all. Kruszelnicki has also studied computer science, philosophy and electrical engineering. He has been among us in the non-academic world too - as a film-maker, taxi driver, weatherman and roadie (to acts like Bo Diddley, Slim Dusty and the Bullamakanka Bush Band).
To quote from a talk he gave in 2015 at the Royal Institution in London, he started off as a young man with disarmingly high trousers, then a milkshake philosopher and a flower-munching hippy before getting a job at a Melbourne steelworks. He was testing the fatigue limit of steel destined for the West Gate box girder bridge across the Yarra River in Victoria, Australia. He found the steel was not up to its full fatigue strength, whereupon he was asked to check it again. Kruszelnicki says he came back with the same result, but left when this made no difference. In 1970, the bridge collapsed during construction with the loss of 35 lives, although not because of steel fatigue, he says.
When I wonder if Kruszelnicki’s many career switches mean he has no fear, he replies that, while at the steelworks, he noticed that being unhappy in your career makes you unhappy in life. Thus he has always followed his interests.
I wonder also about Kruszelnicki’s testosterone levels - I have read that more testosterone may mean less fear? He is not aware of this, but says he doesn’t have much testosterone. He knows this because he has donated sperm. His count was so low that he knew the sperm by name, he says.
The Doctor in ‘Dr Karl’ is medical. These days he mainly uses his skills on flights during medical emergencies. However, he has worked at Sydney’s children’s hospital as a scientific officer doing cardiac catheter studies of coronary blood flow. He has also built an electroretinograph, which detects electric signals from the retina and it is still in use. He says making this machine was a fantastically inventive time - “a year with virtually every hand tool known to man - hammer... soldering iron...”
In fact, he calls both scientists and engineers creative. The difference between them is “scientists discover something never discovered before” while “engineers build something never done before”.
“After 30 years, I’m an overnight success,” jokes Kruszelnicki, despite his IQ being “barely above average”. He puts his achievements down to starting and keeping going (aka working hard). He can also “recognise what the average person would think is a good story and turn it into English”. He is right. His 38 books are full of weird and wonderful scientific facts (like the science behind ‘beer goggles’). He attributes the incredible amount of information he retains to his book writing.
His books and radio shows are all about using science to set the record straight. He has even put out a Sex Pistols-style single called ‘Get Fact’. “People believe all sorts of stuff that isn’t true,” he says. Like mobiles and microwaves causing cancer, for instance. Even though there’s been zero proof in 30 years, he says. For a start, he begins to explain that if mobile phones caused cancer, there’d be a lot more cancer of the hand. This is because the cells most likely to get cancer are the ones which divide rapidly. And skin cells divide every two weeks, he says.
Kruszelnicki spends a lot of time on air and on the Twittersphere dispelling myths and answering the public’s questions on everyday life. He has said there’s no such thing as a silly question, so here go some of them: where does fat go? Exhaled as carbon dioxide. Why don’t fish get crushed by water pressure? They have a special swim bladder. Why is fidgeting good for you? It can burn calories. Why is it safer for a cat to fall 32 than seven storeys? Because it relaxes more. And did you know that lightning probably will strike twice? Because the conditions were right.
Another question was why we get belly-button fluff. Kruszelnicki looked up the medical literature (he recommends the scientific, peer-reviewed Google Scholar, as opposed to its sister search engine). All fluff, says Kruszelnicki, like all roads lead to Rome, seems to flow towards the abdomen. Various people did experiments and Kruszelnicki was inspired to fund his own research. He discovered that the demographic was mainly middle-aged, overweight men and that if you had a front-loader washing machine you were less prone to fluff. Then the fluff was examined under an electron microscope “because no matter how boring it is, it looks better under an electron microscope”.
Next, he solved the mystery of why the fluff is blue. Harvard University gave Kruszelnicki an Ig Nobel for improbable research that makes you laugh, then think. So why is it blue? The answer is because your dead skin is held together by clothes fibres, which are mostly blue because even black clothes are actually made up of blue and green, he explains. It would also be possible to get red belly-button fluff, but only if you walked around wearing red from head to foot. An unlikely occurrence.
Changing the world
Kruszelnicki has also stood for election. In 2007, he was again motivated to ‘get fact’ into the climate change debate. He got sick of yelling at the TV, so he stood for the New South Wales Senate for the Climate Change Coalition. He has said that the world could switch to renewables in a decade if it wanted to. Surely this isn’t possible?
“Easily,” Kruszelnicki surprises me. He offers three examples of governments curtailing big business to urgently bring about big change - firstly in 1941, when America, in war mode, made weapons instead of cars. Kruszelnicki then asks me if I know how a fridge works.
Although chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) began as a miracle non-flammable, non-toxic gas, when it was realised fish were dying in Scandinavia from acid rain and a hole was opening up in the ozone, they were banned. Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) was also banned when side effects such as thinning birds’ egg shells were realised.
Today, says Kruszelnicki, climate change could be fought in war mode, but will governments stand up to big business? Australia, he says, “is the only country which doesn’t realise that coal is a stranded asset”.
Value your plumber
Kruszelnicki was lucky to get his education, and a 20-year-long one at that, for free “back when Australia regarded education as an investment in the future, rather than an intolerable burden”. Now, he says the “underlying philosophy” is for short rather than long-term gain.
In a poll conducted at Sydney University, one in seven students cited Kruszelnicki as the reason they took up science. So what does he think of the quality of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) teaching today?
“Sub-optimal,” he says. Optimal in Finland, where, Kruszelnicki explains, teachers need a Masters degree in education and in their chosen field. There is no homework and the importance of trades is recognised. Good plumbers are a mark of civilisation, he says.
Future science fact or fiction?
The search for subatomic particles gave us the World Wide Web, and the theory of relativity gave us GPS, says Kruszelnicki, but, he continues, did Einstein ever imagine that his theory would lead to drunk people getting pizza instead of salad on a Saturday night?
Will the recent proof of gravitational waves also find application further down the track? It might. “You know, an Australian invented Wi-Fi,” Kruszelnicki notes as an example. Electrical engineer John O’Sullivan got the idea when studying small signals from black holes. Kruszelnicki talks about everything being on the background of the fabric of the universe: “Three words, pay attention: gravity is geometry.” First there is speculation, then doubt, then building, then investing, he says.
What about hacking into our MP3 players and the possibilities of future technology? Useful or sinister? “AI is coming,” says Kruszelnicki. Right now, artificial intelligence (AI) is limited, he says. There are robots that can play chess and draughts, but they can’t fold the washing. “Well they can fold the washing,” he corrects himself, “but it takes about three days.”
What happens next will depend on what we decide today, he says, “as long as we don’t let them get married to 3D printers to copy themselves”. On the one hand, Kruszelnicki is optimistic because sufferers of Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease can benefit from tiny computers in their brains. He is also hopeful because we are experiencing the most peaceful time in history (“have you read Stephen Pinker’s ‘Better Angels of our Nature’?”) and our kids are getting smarter.
On the other hand, Kruszelnicki has read a lot of science fiction (he mentions the hideous futurism of a book called ‘I Have No Mouth but I Must Scream’), so he is aware of the sinister. “A worrying trend for me is autonomous lethal drones,” where your house just might be collateral damage, he adds.
What about CRISPR and genome editing? Surely, we don’t want to live forever? Kruszelnicki sees no problem with, say, 5,000 years of healthy living. “The way we do that - we have to get off this planet.”
We recently had a lucky escape, apparently. “Last Halloween we nearly got wiped out.” A huge chunk of rock just missed the Earth, he says. A mega tsunami could also spell disaster. As things currently stand, we definitely couldn’t evacuate in time.
Kruszelnicki hopes that his asteroid won’t collide with the Earth. Although he prefers to call Asteroid Kruszelnicki/18412 a minor planet. It was discovered by Robert H McNaught at the Siding Spring Observatory in Coonabarabran, New South Wales, in 1993. It is 10-100 metres across and currently halfway between Mars and Jupiter.
Started as a way to pay for medical school, Kruszelnicki’s first radio show was ‘Great Moments in Science’ on the Sydney station Double J. He is also well known for popular science TV shows, including the humorous ‘Sleek Geeks’ (the other geek is well-known Australian mathematician Adam Spencer), where Kruszelnicki and Adam debunked things such as the miracle properties of coconut milk and so-called Paleo food. Since then, Kruszelnicki seems to have been on just about every Australian radio station there is and he still is on about ten of them.
You can also listen to and talk to him in Britain. If you’re a night owl, doing shift work or an insomniac, you can put a question to Kruszelnicki on BBC Radio 5’s ‘Up All Night’ programme between 3am and 4am on Thursday mornings.
Plus, you can read his latest book, ‘Short Back & Science’, where he answers questions like: What are antioxidants? Can they do more harm than good? Does the shape of the glass affect the flavour of wine?
Kruszelnicki says he has never had too much fun. I believe him. He swims in an ocean pool, he drinks tea in the shower. Once, after a dip in the freezing ocean, he ate some chocolate. Or more precisely, he savoured it on his tongue. It didn’t melt for 20 minutes, he says. “I’m guessing it was because I was hypothermic.”
Perhaps ‘How Chocolate Predicts Body Temperature’ will be a sub-heading in a future book? Kruszelnicki ruminates on whether chocolate could tell if you had a fever or not. There he goes, still discovering things.