He’s one of Australia’s most trusted public figures and at the age of 67, he’s just released his 38th book. Yes, it’s Dr Karl Kruszelnicki – star of many a science TV and radio show, who constantly questions the world around us and provides us with answers to intriguing questions, enriching our lives on the way, writes Pamela Connellan.
At his age most of us would be thinking about slowing down or semi-retiring, but this has never been part of the plan for Dr Karl. Apart from writing books, he works full-time at the University of Sydney and takes part in eight radio shows including programs for the BBS Radio 5, Triple J and the ABC in Perth and Adelaide, as well as Tony Delroy Live. He also works on a TV show for ABC News 24 which goes to air on Sundays.
On answering whether he’s planning to retire any time soon, the answer is: “No, never. I love what I’m doing. I would do it even if I wasn’t paid. I just love telling people stories about science”.
He admits that his passion for his work does help a lot: “I’m very lucky though – I kind of do whatever I want”.
The books keep coming
His latest release is titled Dr Karl’s Short Back & Science and in it he tackles some great questions like ‘Debunking coconuts: are they really better for us?’ and ‘Are you radioactive?’
It’s a great read for young and old, and keeps up his tradition of using scientific facts to entertain us.
When asked why he keeps writing these books, Dr Karl explains: “I continually get amazed. For example, the antioxidant story was interesting. I read a piece saying that everything we read about antioxidants being so good for us wasn’t true so I looked into it and found out that too many antioxidants can be bad for you. In normal amounts, they’re good – but in high doses they can actually be harmful.
“It’s a bit similar to my story about vitamin supplements. You couldn’t eat 50 apples in one go so why is it good for you to take 1000mg of vitamin C?” (Dr Karl has more information on this topic online).
Over-scared of radiation
While he loves debunking fads and trends, he is constantly opening our eyes to new things. We have all been trained to be scared of radiation, but the first chapter of his new book he tells us that, “Each of us is bathed in an invisible ocean of radioactive particles and energies… In the vast majority of cases, this radiation does us no harm. That’s good, because you can never get away from it. Every one of us is each personally emitting radioactivity – 24 hours a day”.
In fact, reading on, you find you will be exposed to more radiation if you live for a year in Tibet (3.2 mSv) than you would if you lived for a year in Sydney (2.5 mSv). Of course, this is because Tibet is at a higher altitude than Sydney so you’re getting more radiation from the sun.
“You are going to age anyway, so one good thing is to get a bit of an exercise program going. Your body starts to age after the age of 25 so you need to find something that will offset this – and something that works for you”.
“For me the greatest reward is when someone walks up to me in the supermarket and says, ‘That was interesting what you were talking about the other day.’”
Dr Karl adds, “The point of this is that people are massively over-scared of radiation.”
But we should be scared of the effect of smoking cigarettes. If you smoke two packets of cigarettes a day, by the end of the year you’ll have exposed yourself to 730 mSv, which Dr Karl adds is “… just one of the many, many reasons why smoking is so bad for you”.
Writing all these books must be good for keeping Dr Karl mentally alert – almost like ‘brain fitness.’ On how he retains information, he explains, “In my case, I have a terrible memory but when I spend 20 hours writing a story, my brain stores the whole story as an individual snap shot of that gives me a whole block of information. I can remember all of that information in one go”.
When asked how to stay creative as we age, Dr Karl’s advice was straight to the point.
“You are going to age anyway, so one good thing is to get a bit of an exercise program going. Your body starts to age after the age of 25 so you need to find something that will offset this – and something that works for you.
“You don’t want to lose muscle tone and so retirement gives you the time to get an exercise program underway. I smashed up my shoulder in a surfing accident years ago and broke the ball of my shoulder so running or walking works for me.”
Press your ‘reset’ button
If you have decided to retire or semi-retire, Dr Karl says it’s a great time to ‘reset’ your life by doing something unusual or something you’ve always wanted to do.
“I did the El Camino Santiago Compostela in 2009 which is one of the three main pilgrimages. My mother in law wanted to do it before she was too old – so we all decided to go. My wife and my girls came – at one stage we had 10 people walking the trail. We walked across Spain on the traditional pilgrim’s route.
“We did about 25 kilometres a day and it took us a month and at the end you feel great. All you need is some good walking shoes.
“It’s a great reset and it’s a nice walk – everyone should do it. People do it for all sorts of reasons but if you’re looking at retiring and you just want to do something different – I recommend it as a good way to press the reset button.”
Downtime is important
While he loves his work, Dr Karl does enjoy his time off and admits he has a ‘workshop’ at his home where he sometimes retreats for some ‘me’ time. As well as this he admits that, like most Australians, he enjoys the beach with his family. “This year we went to the Galapagos Islands west of Ecuador. Then we sailed around the arctic oceans up near the Svalbard Archipelago near Norway. We sailed around for a week and we were lucky enough to see the Aurora.”
Education and awards
Dr Karl was born in Helsingborg, Sweden, to Polish parents and his family moved to Australia when he was just two years of age. After three years in a migrant camp, they settled in Wollongong in NSW and it was here that he grew up.
His high school years were spent at the Edmund Rice Christian Brothers College in Wollongong and after winning a Commonwealth Scholarship for university, he now holds a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics, a Master of Biomedical Engineering and a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery. As a Science Commentator, he has won many awards, among them the Member of the Order of Australia in 2006 and in 2012 he was named a National Living Treasure by the National Trust of Australia.
We asked him how it feels to be recognised for his work by these awards. “It’s nice, but for me the greatest reward is when someone walks up to me in the supermarket and says, ‘That was interesting what you were talking about the other day,’ or something like that. For me that’s definitely the greatest reward – direct feedback.”
Known for his authenticity
One of the most recent awards and one that might be close to Dr Karl’s heart, is the Reader’s Digest award he received in 2014. Readers voted him as the ninth most trusted person in Australia. This is likely because of his no-nonsense, scientific approach to his work and the fact he has no hidden agenda.
“I test the facts and avoid opinions,” he says. “The facts give you much more than opinions.”
“The media doesn’t care about the facts – they just want to sell the newspaper that day,” he adds.
Is there a mistake?
As much as he is a precise and factual scientist, Dr Karl is insistent there could be a mistake in Dr Karl’s Short Back & Science.
“There’s probably a mistake in it somewhere and if anyone finds one and they can let me know, they can get a complimentary copy of the book. We want the feedback,” he says.
“You know when the Amish make a quilt or the Muslims make a prayer rug, they deliberately put a mistake in it somewhere because only God or Allah is perfect.”
Dr Karl says he hasn’t planted a mistake on purpose but he’s “…sure someone will find something somewhere and they should let us know”.
In the meantime, when we ask the good doctor once more about what motivates him to be so prolific and to keep doing so much, he laughs and replies simply: “Well, as the actress said to the bishop, if you don’t use it – you lose it!”
Dr Karl’s newest title, Short Back & Science is published by Pan Macmillan Australia and will be available for purchase online and in stores from November. Dr Karl is touring QLD, NSW, VIC and WA over the next few months and can be caught over the radio. To find out more, head to www.drkarl.com