Weird Science: Dr Karl Kruszelnicki is pessimistic about Australian innovation but optimistic about saving the world.
The Learning Press EXCLUSIVE
When Malcolm Turnbull put technology at the heart of his vision for a smarter and more agile Australia, he created a wave of optimism about the nation’s innovative new direction.
Yet the man who has done more than anyone over the last 30 years to sell the joys of science to an apathetic nation is scathing about the rhetoric of the new Government.
Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, affable media nerd and Australia’s best loved scientist, is angry.
“At the moment the big buzzword is innovation - I think it’s a kind of con,” he says.
“It’s saying the words, whereas in Australia on a general level there’s an anti-science culture.”
Dr Karl will this year launch his 40th top-selling science book and speak to an audience of millions through the airwaves of the ABC and BBC about topics ranging from belly-button lint to gamma rays.
As a writer, TV personality and radio presenter, he has built a career out of his ability to weave stories from the most mundane and sometimes the most extraordinary scientific facts.
His academic qualifications span physics, maths, medicine, engineering and astrophysics.
He’s been named Father of the Year, an Apple Master, an Ig Nobel Prize winner, an Order of Australia recipient and most recently, a National Living Treasure.
Australia loves Dr Karl and Dr Karl loves Australia - which is why he feels so strongly about the future of innovation in a country with an atrophied manufacturing base.
“There’s a special term called the Economic Complexity Index and it's this crazy scale that runs from -1 to +2¼,” he explains.
“At -1 you’ve got zero technology, you’ve got a naked guy with a stick in the desert. He can use that stick as a weapon, to get food, to make shelter but he can't use the stick to turn, say, iron ore into iron.
“At the other end at +2¼ you can do anything. You can get some gold and turn it into a thin, filmy, totally flexible fabric and then turn it into hollow nanotubes which are filled with carbon and you can then use it as a filter that'll remove oxygen or nitrogen from the air. You can do amazing stuff at 2¼.
“Japan and Germany are at 1.8 and the United States is at 1.6.
“On that worldwide scale, Australia is at -0.3 and when we lose the companies that make cars in Australia, we will drop back to -0.4 overnight because all the little companies that supply those big car companies with windscreen wipers and brake pads will just shut down.
“Industry drives innovation - it’s a two-way street.
“You can't be the world's best pianist without a piano. You can’t have all these people thinking these thoughts without somewhere to do it when there are no car companies.
“Every car industry around the world is subsidised by its government because it's such a driver of innovation.
“You can use the word innovation all you like but if the Turnbull government doesn't reverse the decision taken by the previous administration to get rid of the car companies, our innovation is going down.”
Surely the new PM’s advocacy for technological literacy - backed by policies encouraging start-ups, industry-tailored research and more STEM resources in schools - should be cause for optimism?
Dr Karl concedes it is an improvement on the previous cabinet’s direction.
But while projects such as the Abbot Point Coal Terminal - which involves dredging close to The Great Barrier Reef - are still being approved, he remains critical of our national approach to climate science.
And while private schools are on course to receive more government money per child than public schools, he remains sceptical of the Government's commitment to improved science education for all.
“There’s walking the walk and talking the talk,” he says of our new PM.
“It will be interesting to see what Turnbull does as opposed to what he says.”
All of which adds up to a surprisingly negative assessment from a man whose natural persona is contagiously enthusiastic.
His assessment of Australia as an “anti-science culture” in particular seems a little overwrought - but then in typical Dr Karl fashion he uses an example to nail his explanation.
“Australia invented WIFI purely accidentally as a result of an Australian engineer trying to work out a way to find black holes in 1972 using mathematics,” he said.
“He never found the black holes but that mathematics turned out to be the basis of the mathematics underlying WIFI.
“As a result of developing WIFI, the CSIRO got $1million in royalties.
“Then the previous administration fired one quarter of the scientists employed by the CSIRO.
“If that's the message we're getting from on high, then the kids in schools will respond accordingly.”
It’s a clever reflection not only on the flow-down effects of cutting from the top, but about the way innovation often comes about in a non-linear, accidental way as a result of people beavering away in STEM-based arenas.
But then explaining things in a way that resonates with people has always been a talent.
Dr Karl sees himself more than anything else as a storyteller - with science providing an ever-changing menu of material.
Asked whether he deliberately brings an anarchic sense of fun to a traditionally serious subject, he replies: “That’s just naturally within the science.
“If it turns out, for example, that it’s safer for a cat to fall from 32 storeys than from 7 storeys, well so be it. Science follows its own rules.”
But his gift for engaging people in a narrative - and an ability to answer every question thrown at him - is only possible because he still spends so much of his time learning.
“Firstly, I’ve got the benefit of 28 years of education on the Australian taxpayer - I'd like to thank them very much for paying for me - and secondly, I read my way through ten thousand dollars worth of scientific literature every year, which is a pile about a metre thick every month or so.
“Then out of that I find weird stuff and then I try to turn that into stories.
“I'm always looking for these odd little things that I think people will like - the sort of things I like to say to my family and they say 'wow'.”
Asked if he sees himself as a trailblazer in his attempts to bring science to the masses, the 67-year-old is characteristically modest.
“Oh no, many people have gone before me and many people will come after me and many work in parallel.
“I’m just the one who was lucky enough to get the public profile and use that for good.”
As the son of holocaust survivors who moved to Australia from Sweden in 1950, Karl escaped hardship through a quality public education.
He fears that the concept of free education as a worthy investment is becoming devalued - and during his many talks at schools all over Australia, he urges children to engage in changing the world.
“Some kids have the mindset of becoming a musician or a physicist or a painter or a chef or a tradie but some of them also have the mindset of becoming a politician.
“At all of my talks I include the thought that by becoming involved in politics they'll have power.
“In some parts of the world, power grows out of the barrel of a gun, but in Australia and much of the world, power comes because of the laws that have been passed.
“If they go into politics they can change things.”
As a child, the ever-curious Karl was dissatisfied with accepted truths when they made no sense.
“I was frustrated by not understanding stuff and I wanted to understand how it worked - people would give explanations which were just a memorised incorrect bunch of words put together.”
Nothing much has changed.
He is frustrated by what he sees as an inequitable education system, a lack of investment in the manufacturing that drives innovation and political statements at odds with policy.
He will forever seek the truth, whether it may be about black holes or white lies.
So you know that when he says he’s “very optimistic” about the future, he really means it.
“Firstly, if we wanted to, the whole world could go zero carbon electricity in ten years. We can stop dumping the carbon dioxide from making electricity into the atmosphere really easily,” he says.
“Secondly, with each generation, the kids are getting nine IQ points smarter.
“We know this because of IQ test records going back to 1932 - the tests have had to be made continually more difficult because people are getting higher scores.
“We don't know why - but we do know the brain is not fixed like a muscle, you can grow it, you can make it more agile and strong, you can make it smarter.
“We know that in 1900, only 3 per cent of people had jobs where they sat down and thought, whereas today, 35 per cent of people do.
“And we know we’re living in a much more abstract world now, so if you got a kid in 1900 and you said 'tell me about a dog and a cat', the kid would say 'well, a dog will chase a cat', whereas today they'll say, 'well obviously they're both mammals'.
“Thirdly, we are living in the most peaceful time ever in history.
“If you look at the overall picture globally we are undeniably moving in the direction of a more peaceful existence.
“So yes, I'm optimistic about the future - because we can stop global warming, the kids are smarter and we're living in the most peaceful time ever.”
And that’s why we love Dr Karl - we trust him to get to the truth of the science and present it to us so beautifully simply.
Dr Karl Kruszelnicki’s latest book, ‘Short, Back and Science’, is available from Pan Macmillan