Dr Karl Kruszelnicki: Best-selling popular science author

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image-drkarl200Karl Kruszelnicki has written 26 books. His first book Great Moments In Science was published in 1984 and his latest book Please Explain was released in November 2007.

According to New Scientist Magazine Karl's last five books have all become best-selling popular science books in Australia.

In 1996 Karl was invited by the United States Information Agency to be a Distinguished Foreign Guest in their International Visitor Program. He visited NORAD, Dryden Air Force Base and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory – and got to sit in the front seat of an SR-71 Blackbird.

In 2002 Dr Karl was honoured with the prestigious Ig Nobel prize awarded by Harvard University in the USA for his ground-breaking research into Belly Button Lint and why it is almost always blue.

In 2003, Dr Karl was named Australian father of the year. He has received the Member of the Order of Australia Award in the 2006 Australia Day Honours list and in 2007 he was awarded the Australia Skeptic Of The Year Prize.

He has degrees in Physics and Maths, Biomedical Engineering, Medicine and Surgery and has worked as a physicist, tutor, film-maker, car mechanic, labourer, and as a medical doctor at the Kids' Hospital in Sydney.

He lives in Sydney with his wife and three children.

Click play to listen. Running time: 22.50

Science is Golden


* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

So thanks for joining us today, Dr. Karl.

Dr. Karl:
It’s my pleasure, thank you.

Now you have written so many books. Do you have a favourite Dr. Karl book?

Dr. Karl:
Probably the one that I'm writing at the moment because I remember it better than all of the other ones, they’re sort of like oxygen – they come in and they go out and then I forget.

What’s the one that you are writing about right now?

Dr. Karl:
This one is called Science is Golden and once again it’s basically kind of dealing with misconceptions that people believe that are all hideously wrong. So far I've written several hundred of these, 350 misconceptions and you just wonder how can we humans go around believing so much crap that’s wrong.

Yes, why do you think that we do?

Dr. Karl:
I don’t know. It's more of a story that can be answered by psychologists but I suspect that if you ask six different psychologists that you will get six different answers.

Now were you always interested in science even as a kid? Was it something that you played with in the yard when you were little?

Dr. Karl:
Not really. I do remember once reading an astronomy book when I was seven years old and being very impressed about how big the solar system was or how big the earth was, how big the solar system was. How our solar system was just one of several hundred billion stars in our galaxy and how there were several hundred billion galaxies. I didn’t realize that we would never, ever get to the end of everything.

I never was interested even though I stayed in science for a bit and then dropped out of it for a while. Then I went to New Guinea and did some stuff there and then came back and did some filmmaking and ended up drifting back into the hospital system as a scientific officer. And then became a doctor and then sort of accidentally drifted back into science because, I don’t know why but not knowing the life sciences left me with a big hole in my education.

Now that I've picked up that knowledge I feel much better being able to talk about general knowledge.

And bringing science to a mainstream audience is something that you do really well. Is it something that you are quite passionate about? Why do you want to do it?

Dr. Karl:
For a variety of reasons, one is just that being a storyteller. Number two the way to do it is to ignore the boring stuff and just concentrate on the interesting stuff that people can talk about in pubs. Number three, science can improve your quality of life enormously and does so, has done and will continue to do so.

And the other reason in the media is so that I can help liberate people from what holds them back. I did this first as a medical doctor in a kid’s hospital and then I realized that I could do more good telling people sensible stuff in the media than I could one-to-one as a doctor patient relationship scene.

So get your kids vaccinated I say. Sure vaccination is not perfect, nothing made by humans is perfect but it’s the best thing that we’ve got. Go for it. And so basically I've realized that my role is now to help liberate people from what holds them back and so if I'm in the supermarket before I get to the checkout there will be probably two or three people who will come up to thank me. They will say that I've been listening to your radio shows, etc., etc., and the results I've… and they will pick any one of a number of things.

I've decided to go back to finish my high school certificate or do a degree in nursing or become a chippy or do my PhD again. But I don’t know what it is about my answering questions on the radio that encourages people to use their brains but maybe that’s what our show is all about, the fact that there reasonably logical ways to solve these problems of what’s going on in the world around us.

As we are heading into winter and the time available for watching gets shorter because in summer you get thirteen and half hours of sunlight in Sydney and in winter you get nine and half and also the sun is lower on the horizon. So you are basically getting about half the number of sunlight scene to dry clothes so which way should you hang your towels. Should you hang them up/down or left/right? Still haven’t solved that one.

Now you do quite a combination of things from radio to writing books to your work in the hospital. Is it hard to juggle it all and is there something that you actually prefer over the other?

Dr. Karl:
The thing that I like best is the creative process, writing a story for radio or for a book. The trouble is that there is all this other paperwork, for example I had to walk up to the bank and deposit the check, right. So that was half an hour that I couldn’t be doing creative stuff.

On the other hand I managed to walk quickly and so it was a fun time for my mind to tune out and tune in at the same time. So I was doing a little bit of a very mild exercise and walking rapidly through the streets as well as getting to the bank. So it wasn’t a waste of time.

Writing a book involves a lot of research, a lot of writing, a lot of editing. It’s a very long process, writing a book. Do you find that you get as much out of that as you do with the sort of instant gratification so to speak of a radio show?

Dr. Karl:
Well on one hand the radio show is something that I've spent my whole life preparing for because the questions can range from why does the hair on my eyebrows grow shorter than the hair on my skull, so to answer that you’ve got to have a bit of genetics/dermatology, to how come when I left the car battery on the concrete it went flat so I had another car battery and I left it on a lump of wood and it didn’t go flat.

To be able to answer both of those questions one right after the other, I do need to have a large database of knowledge already in my brain which I have spent most of my life accumulating. Then I just get the instant gratification which is fun.

Though on the other hand, the way that I get the knowledge in my brain is not just by reading because that’s only a false and not true knowledge. You think that you know and you might but the only way that you can tell is if you try to explain it to somebody. If you can’t explain it to somebody then you don’t really know it. You’ve got to pool understanding.

So my colleague, Adam Spencer and I were doing a story about royal jelly. We were trying to understand how come the bees seemed to have three genders in their nest, in their hive. One fertile female who lives six or so years, the infertile females and it took us a while to work out the reason why they are infertile is that they don’t have ovaries. The infertile females live about 42 days and die and a handful of drones who are fertile males whose only job is to impregnate the queen bee once and then get booted out of the nest to die next time winter happens.

To try and do that little summary that I just gave you, that took firstly to write the story it took me about 20 hours and then I had completely forgotten about it. Then Adam read through it and he was reading back stuff and it was completely as though I had never written the story. But luckily I wrote it fairly concisely so that I could understand what I had written and then it took another 20 minutes for me to be able give a hit around the stuff that I gave you back in one short 90-second sentence.

The books are necessary to keep on building up a database because that way if I can turn it into a story then I know that I understand it. Of course I might have made a mistake or two along the way. I always run it past experts in the fields when I can.

So the books are a necessary part of the process of understanding and then they give me the wonderful instantaneous gratification so that I've got a similar show to the Triple J Science talkback show. I've got in various parts of Australia, far North Queensland, Brisbane and Broken Hill.

In the BBC I've got a show for about five or something years now. And it’s a similar talkback show on the BBC Radio Five Live. So people ring in. It’s a funny concept that there is this guy from Australia answering questions to a British audience.

I was doing a gig in a rain forest once for a pharmaceutical company. The topic was some obscure part of neuroscience and it was quite lovely. The company would sit up nicely. We would walk through the rain forest, little lights dotted here, little tables set up in a clearing. We had a screen and a data projector.

So I'm talking away to the audience and suddenly this guy comes out of the audience, drunkenly lurches up to the front of the stage and says that, “You’re real, Dr. Karl, you’re real,” in a pommy accent. It turns out that this guy has been listening to me for the last three years in Lester and he does the midnight to dawn shift and he’s researched because that’s the only time that he can get a good run at everything. He listens to me between 3:00 and 4:00 am English time as he’s driving home.

All the time for the last couple of years, he thought that this was some sort of comedy stand up show where they get to have an Australian in a next door studio and he never realized I actually was a real, knowledgeably living in Australia until he came in here and saw me on the stage. We talked afterward, “We started to realize that you were real,” drunkenly of course.

Did he think that you were making up the answers or something as well?

Dr. Karl:
Oh no, because they really pick up, the first one if you don’t know the answer you say, “I don’t know.” And secondly you do try to give them something interesting because this is radio, entertainment. Its airtime, you never try and lie. I do make mistakes from time to time and I'm very lucky that people pick me up on them.

You seem to have very unique ideas for marketing some of your books. Tell us about the marketing campaign for It Ain’t Necessarily So… Bro.

Dr. Karl:
We were doing launches for some years and the trouble with a launch is that it’s not real, nothing gets launched. You just sit there. You go and you drink cheap wine and you have some cheese and think that you got hit by launch of this book. You’ve sold half a dozen books to your friends and family and that’s the end of it. Nothing else happens.

I thought maybe we can do better than that. So we folded the book into a cylinder. It was actually Caroline’s idea, the woman that I work with, Caroline Pegram. We folded the book into a cylinder and for the launch we approached the Sydney Rocketry club. Luckily the guy who we dealt with was an ex-rocket man from the United States Air Force. He was over here in Australia. Very handy, the university is good for that sort of stuff.

So we approached him and he folded the book into a cylinder, stuck a rocket cone with a couple of parachutes in one end, couple rocket engines at the other end. Stuck on a few fins and we launched it from Bondi Beach Bondi Rescue on Channel 7.

We had to get permission from Civil Aviation Air Authority to do it and we had to keep the rocket under 500 feet and the people at HarperCollins were having all sorts of conniptions over the legal implications as you would expect because the legal person didn’t know rockets. You can’t blame them for not knowing rockets so it was a wonderful launch and this year we are going for the Guinness Book of Records.

In what way?

Dr. Karl:
There is a Guinness Book of Records, believe it or not, for the most number of radio interviews done in a single 24-hr day and it is currently at about 60 and we are going to try and beat that.

I think that the rocket launch is probably the only true book launching in the history then.

Dr. Karl:
That’s right unless someone were to make it into a boat and float it off into the Harbour or something like that.

So tell us about your typical working day, you do everything.

Dr. Karl:
I work for the university. That’s really encouraging. I give lectures and apparently these are mainly to the general public and skills students, mainly skills students actually. These lectures are so inspiring I'm responsible apparently for one in every seven people coming to the University of Sydney to study science.

Then I do stuff for the ABC and that’s wonderful because you get to talk to a very large audience and then I do public speaking as well. So I was talking to the pharmacists of South Australia and to the self-insurers of South Australia over the weekend, and then I do family as well.

And when do you write your books, how does that all fit in?

Dr. Karl:
At the moment it varies. The first thing is that to write a short story is much easier than a long one. It basically goes up as a square of the time. So if the book or the story is ten times longer it doesn’t take ten times longer in time to write, it takes a hundred times. Because writing a thousand word chapter, I can do in about two hours. Writing a ten thousand word chapter takes about 50 hours. It’s not a hundred times, but it takes a lot longer.

So for my columns it all begins at the moment with the columns that I do for the Good Weekend in the Herald. To write a fairly microscopic 400-word story takes me about twelve hours. During that time I will have read widely through the literature. I will have generated a file two centimetres thick, which are about 50,000 words.

I will have read every single word of it once and underlined it. Then I will have gone through and the bits that I have underlined I will have written them down by hand onto sheets of paper. Then when it’s all loaded in my brain then with reference to summary on the sheets of paper, so I will have shrunk two centimetres of paper of 50,000 words down to about four pages, or two pages, or one page if I'm lucky.

Then the actual writing takes only about an hour. Then I get my wife to correct it and edit it. She’s my best editor. Then I send it to the Herald where they do things to it. Then when it comes time to turn into a book, I add in the little things that I left out to keep it down to 400 words.

Do you read other science writers or other science fiction writers?

Dr. Karl:
Believe it or not, I used to read lots and lots of books, and by books I don’t mean my books, but science fiction books. And I read one book from every day from when I was 16 to 32. And that’s a full hard cover book. And at 32 I had to stop because I started studying science, studying medicine.

The body of knowledge that you have to absorb to be a medical doctor is huge. It’s not particularly difficult, any of it. It’s just that there is so much of it, because the human body is so complicated.

You don’t need brains to be a medical doctor. You need a memory. Memory is the most important thing. So you can say, “Okay, you’ve got these symptoms, now according to my memory the closest match is scarlet fever.” So with the memory, the patient comes in and you say that you’ve got these symptoms according to my memory, you’ve got scarlet fever except for this little symptom here and I will worry about that quiet in the background but we will make our first tentative diagnosis.

So I've started taking up them, I've decided in the last couple of weeks that I'm sick of not reading books. So I started off with the most junky books I could find, science fiction writers of the late twentieth century. And I don’t mean that gloomy crap where the future is dark and it rains a lot, the rich people are eating and the poor people are screwed.

I mean imaginative science fiction where the plots are thin, the characterization is thin, but the plots are complex.

What are you reading now?

Dr. Karl:
I'm reading a story by Poul Anderson, who is a wonderful science fiction writer. He came up with the Hoochie series and lot of other good stuff. This is a book written about 20 years ago called Operation Chaos. I think that it was probably written 40 years ago. It’s about a world where magic is real. It’s like Harry Potter.

So he was exploring those concepts of a hero throws these spells and it’s not done in the Dungeons and Dragons sort of people wearing long flowing gowns. The guy goes to work every day and he lives in modern America except modern America is having a battle with various other religious organizations and wizards and witches and people have broom sticks to travel around on.

His skill is that he can turn into a wolf with a very heightened sense of smell. It even describes how he has to wear special elasticized underwear so when he changes from human into wolf and back again he doesn’t suddenly end up naked in the street when he turns back into a human again.

Do you do all of your research or do you have assistance at all?

Dr. Karl:
I do it. I read my way through $10,000 worth of scientific literature every year, a pile about a metre thick every month. Because other people don’t see the stuff that I do.

And don’t give you the understanding that you need.

Dr. Karl:
I'm always after true and deep understanding. I remember this morning I was listening to my colleague out of Spencer reading back his story that I myself had written but had completely forgotten. Like it was saying why and again I don’t understand. I just kept on harrying at him until finally I understand the three genders of bees. Now it’s all clear in my head. I had forgotten what I had written about it, how about that?

Finally what advice would you give to other aspiring writers who might want to write about their area of expertise?

Dr. Karl:
It’s hard, depending upon whether they are trying to write a novel, fiction or non-fiction. And if it’s non-fiction, is there time to write it at a high technical or one for the general public. But in general I would say, write it so that your grandmother can understand it. Write it so that the slightly drunk, obnoxious guy down the pup is interested enough to keep on reading to understand it.

Good advice, thank you for your time today, Dr. Karl.

Dr. Karl:
Okay, wonderful.

Thank you. I really appreciate it

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