He brings with him wit, the occasional shock factor and a depth of information on topics ranging from physics and biomedical engineering to why a hummingbird’s tongue is forked. Australian science commentator, broadcaster, author and 2012 National Living Treasure, Karl Kruszelnicki – more commonly known as ‘Dr Karl’ – has helped make science ‘cool’ to bring out the little bit of geek in all of us.
So, who better to accompany travellers into the mesmerising wonders of Antarctica than Dr Karl himself? It’ll be the perfect opportunity to ask him some questions – from the downright weird to the wonderful.
“There’s this frigid continent in front of you and a whole different bunch of things that you have never seen before and will not see anywhere else in the world,” says Dr Karl, who has travelled to Antarctica in 2009, 2010 and 2012, but is excited to explore parts of the Antarctic he is yet to discover.
“It was amazing seeing my first iceberg and seeing hints of blue ice. It took me a long time to work out why some ice was blue, why some was white and why some was green.”
If you’re expecting an answer to the mystery behind the colour, it would “involve learning a little bit about atoms,” he says. Given it takes two days to cross the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula, you’ll have plenty of time to find out if you join him in November 2019.
As well as his talkback gigs, Dr Karl presented the first series of Quantum and co-hosted the TV series Sleek Geeks alongside Adam Spencer. His many accolades and accomplishments include: designing and building a machine to pick up electrical signals from the human retina for Fred Hollows, being listed as a Member of the Order of Australia in 2006 and receiving Australian Father of the Year in 2003. To add to the list, he’s had an asteroid named after him and authored 43 popular science books, with number 44 and 45 on the way.
He even has an Ig Nobel Prize, which is a parody of the Nobel Prize award. And what did the brilliant mind of Dr Karl do to receive such a prestigious honour? He did a research project on why we get belly button fluff – perhaps another topic for discussion when crossing the Drake Passage.
With degrees in Physics and Maths, Biomedical Engineering, Medicine and Surgery, and several years of non-degree study in university on astrophysics, computer science and philosophy, it came as no surprise that Dr Karl expressed excitement, wonder and bounds of knowledge when we had a chat with him.
Read on to find out what he thinks about climate change sceptics, why he wants to enter politics and what he believes is the greatest moment in science.
With your growing list of accolades and even having an asteroid named after you, did you ever see your career exploding to the great success it has become?
“Ah, 18412, I really hope that it doesn’t get bumped by a passing asteroid and end up on a collision path with Earth. In Halloween 2015, a 600-metre asteroid (2015 TB145) just missed us by 1.3 times the distance between the earth and the moon. If it had hit us, it would have wiped out between 10 and 16 per cent of the human race. Luckily for us, it was not on a collision path.”
Modestly, Karl says his career isn’t that successful but seems to follow where life takes him. “I just sort of followed along like a paddle pop stick in the gutter of life on a rainy day and somehow here I am, and it’s all a bit of a mystery. I’ve been incredibly lucky. People have been awfully good to me along the way.”
Do you have a specific moment in your career that’s been a highlight?
“Not dying has always been good [but] there are so many good things. Going to Antarctica, getting married, having the first child, having the second child, having the third child. I mean, three children, my god! Being with friends and family, not being dead, making somebody else’s life better, being a taxi driver, being a car mechanic. There are so many good things; it’s really hard to tell.”
What motivates you to constantly ‘be in the know’ when it comes to scientific studies and discoveries?
“Because there’s such amazing stuff out there that these scientists are doing and discovering. Like the tongue of a hummingbird is forked like a snake and it goes out, dips into the nectar, opens up; then closes and then acts like a pump and then shoves the nectar back in, and it does it 20 times a second! Can you imagine eating 20 times a second?”
What would you consider to be one of the great moments in science?
“The Bow Street Pump. John Snow, in London in the 1700s, was a medical doctor and he suddenly started getting all his patients coming down with cholera. Between diagnosing it and then beginning to treat it, the patient can die. They die really quickly.
“So, he got a list … he plotted their addresses on a map of London; they were all centred on the water pump in Bow Street… [It] was the centre of this epidemic of cholera.
“To deal with it, he did an illegal thing. He broke the pump. As a result, the cholera epidemic stopped cold. He proved there was a link between dirty water and this terrible disease called cholera. This took us down the pathway of realising that you need clean drinking water.
“In terms of the good for humanity that it’s done, I think it’s one of the best things that the human race did – and vaccines are pretty good too.”
You’ll be accompanying a group of travellers on a cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula with World Expeditions. What are you most looking forward to on this trip?
“Seeing parts of Antarctica I’ve never seen before. Antarctica is big – two or three times the size of Australia or the contiguous states of the USA, depending on the time of year. It’s, of course, a very important area in terms of global warming but also in terms of future resources [and] wildlife preservation.
“Three times I’ve done what they call, ‘The Deep Antarctic Experience’, where you spend five days travelling from Australia and New Zealand, then you go down and you end up there. Then you spend about a week travelling around and a week coming back again. This time, we’re coming out of South America and – I’ve heard about this but I’ve never done it – it’s a totally different experience … more animals, but not the same.
“I never get sick of seeing whales. I just want to see everything that there is. Hopefully I will, if I’m lucky.”
There continues to be scepticism around climate change. What is your reaction to these sceptics?
“The big picture view is that in the USA – I don’t have the figures for Australia, but I imagine that they’re not too different – you’ve got:
• 6% of the population that do not accept that smoking is bad for their health.
• 7% do believe that you get chocolate milk from brown cows.
• 8% do not accept that a mental disorder can have some sort of physical electrical correlation inside the brain. In other words, they reckon that a mental disorder is due to either mental weakness or positioned by the devil.
• 10% do not accept that DNA exists.
• 15% do not accept that childhood vaccinations work and are overwhelmingly safe.
• One quarter of Americans, for the last half century, do not accept that the Earth goes around the sun.
• 40% of Americans do not accept that evolution is real, even though we’ve got bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics and if they’re cotton farmers, insects developing resistance to pesticides.
• 40% do not accept that radiocarbon dating is accurate because they’re tied to a belief that the Earth is younger than 10,000 years.
• Finally, 51% of Americans – even though they have zero training in cosmology, astronomy, astrophysics – do not accept that the Big Bang happened.
“This is the snapshot of the people who exist in one of the wealthiest and the most militarily powerful countries on Earth.
“Denial of global warming is one of the inaccuracies or the wrong things that they believe. The trouble with denying global warming is it takes us down a pathway which is going to get very expensive in the next generation.”
Do you feel you have a sort of duty to change people’s perception on global warming and climate change?
“I have several duties, but to change their perception I can see arguments both ways. On one hand is the right to believe any crazy crap you want, but then on the other hand, you have the right to wave your arms around, but that right stops at my face.
“In 1989, the scientists all agreed that global warming was real. We caused it through carbon dioxide and it was going to get expensive. For about a year, nothing much happened … then the fossil fuel companies swung into action.
“We have the emails in the New York Times from the big fossil fuel companies who, to summarise it, said, we have two options. One, we admit that global warming is real and we go down the risky pathway of changing from a fossil fuel energy company into another energy company. Number two, we fund a denial programme and we do business as usual. In the emails, they’re quite clear that they decided to fund denialist programmes and do business as usual.”
“And here we are today, more than a quarter of a century after, and already we’re seeing the effects of global warming. The scientists took a long time to convince, but it’s finally popped up in the statistics that now the extreme weather we’re seeing is the result of global warming… but the Murdoch Press is still funding a denial campaign.”
Do you feel you need to influence the decisions people make to become more environmentally aware when travelling?
“It’s hard … there are some people who are invincibly ignorant and you can do nothing for them… The choice is to do nothing or to speak up.
“I’m speaking up saying we’ve got to change the way that we power planes. The big one: transport [is] handling 15% of the world’s carbon dioxide output.
“Road transport is easy; we just go for big, fat batteries or for really long runs, hydrogen. For ships and aeroplanes, very simple, [go] hydrogen. Hydrogen can go bang, sure, but so could petrol. We do it with petrol; we could do it with hydrogen, no big deal.”
With the rise in Antarctic sea levels, do you think that’s an impending threat to the world if action isn’t taken sooner rather than later?
“Definitely. The ocean levels are rising, and rising at an increasing rate, and the predictions that we have from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) are very conservative predictions because they do not incorporate positive feedback loops, which would make them worse.”
“Molecule for molecule, methane is 100 times worse than carbon dioxide in trapping heat… There is about three times as much methane in the permafrost as we have dumped in our entire history of global warming, and that permafrost is melting.”
“The worry is that we’ll get to a certain stage when we aren’t releasing carbon dioxide but the amount of methane in the atmosphere is so great that it then warms up the atmosphere; which then releases more methane, which then warms up the atmosphere more, which then releases more methane. Even though we’re not doing anything with carbon dioxide, this positive feedback loop keeps going until it runs out of methane.
“If you include the positive feedback loops with global warming and the ocean level rise, you’re looking at a five to eight metre ocean level rise by the end of this century. What that means is that every port that is a port will no longer be a port, and new geographical areas will suddenly find that they’ve got the right geography to be a port… That’s why we have to get into politics now to do something about it.”
You’ve authored 43 books, having recently released Karl, the universe and everything. What can we expect from your next book?
“More weird stuff from the land of science, including stuff from biology and the heavens.
“Did you know that hummingbirds burn up so much energy that at any given moment in the daytime they are an hour away from death. If they stop eating they’ll be dead in an hour. A hummingbird at full blast does its most energetic activity hovering, which it does about 15% of the time. It’s using energy; so gram for gram, it has the highest metabolic rate of any animal known.
“If a human was the size of a hummingbird, to avoid losing weight and burning up its energy, they would have to drink a can of coke, which is loaded with nine or ten spoonfuls of sugar, every minute!”
World Expeditions is offering an exclusive charter to Antarctica with Dr Karl in November 2019. This will be a rare opportunity to venture to one of Earth’s most unique and remote corners with one of Australia’s most unique minds. Find out more >
If you were to join Dr Karl in Antarctica, what would you ask him?