Dr Karl Kruszelnicki on 40 years talking about science on the ABC, fighting fake news and saving a life
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In the late 1980s, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki was happily working in his "dream job" as a doctor at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children in Camperdown, NSW, and doing a little broadcasting on the side, talking about science on the ABC's triple j radio station.
He may well have continued with a career in paediatric medicine had it not been for the death of a baby which had a profound effect on him.
"I was so angry, that baby died for nothing," Dr Karl Kruszelnicki says.
The baby had died from whooping cough, a serious respiratory illness which can cause violent and uncontrollable coughing and difficulty breathing.
Broad community immunisation had kept the disease at bay, but Kruszelnicki says that after some "irresponsible" media reporting, which questioned the effectiveness of the whooping cough vaccine, vaccination rates fell and there was a resurgence of the disease. Little babies who were too young to be vaccinated were the most vulnerable.
"The number of deaths from whooping cough in Australia was virtually zero for 20 years, because we had wall-to-wall vaccination," he says.
"It's true that the whooping cough vaccine is not the world's best vaccine.
"You get vaccinated twice for measles and you are set for life. You get vaccinated a couple of times for whooping cough and you have to get vaccinated a few more times and, even then, the protection is not that good — but it's better than not at all.
"So, the only way that the vaccine works is if everybody in the society is vaccinated and then you get herd immunity, then it works really well.
"Suddenly, a commercial TV show started pushing the idea that, 'hey, vaccines didn't really work', especially whooping cough.
"In what they called 'balanced reporting', they had one doctor saying 'get vaccinated', 'balanced' against one crackpot saying 'no, don't' and then they said, 'dear viewer, you decide'.
"The vaccination rate went down, and suddenly we started seeing whooping cough running throughout society — and we now had babies dying all over the place."
Appalled by the potential harm caused by misinformation – and, worse, disinformation — Dr Karl decided to quit medicine and make science communication his full-time career.
"When that baby died, I thought this is a terrible thing, I have got to get into the media," he says.
"I loved being a doctor, it was best job I've ever had in my life, but I felt I could do more good in the community by doing science stuff on radio, which I also loved, and reaching a bigger audience. I'm trying to help people gain some understanding of the world around them — because the world is complicated."
Fast forward four decades and he's a household name, the scientist with the signature colourful shirts known simply as Dr Karl.
On top of his enduring triple j gig, the station's longest-running segment, Dr Karl, a qualified doctor, scientist and engineer, regularly talks about all things science on numerous ABC radio stations across Australia and podcasts.
He was a presenter on the first series of the ABC TV science show, Quantum, and has appeared on other ABC and commercial television programs, such as the Midday Show and Sunrise.
He's published 47 books, and delivered countless public speeches and performances.
Among many awards and honours, Dr Karl has received the Harvard University Ig Nobel Prize for his ground-breaking research into why belly button lint is almost always blue, he's had an asteroid named after him (18412 Kruszelnicki) and he's the Julius Sumner Miller Fellow at Sydney University. He was the first and only Australian to win the United Nations Kalinga Prize for Science Communication.
Dr Karl's talent for making science fun and interesting has saved lives and sight – more on that later – but, in the age of social media and the smart phone, fighting the good fight against false information is harder than ever.
"This whole problem of disinformation and fake news is huge. It's harming people, it's killing people," he says.
"The lies are going out there for revenue and also for political gain, and people are using social media for their own ends. Until the COVID vaccine came out in America, Republicans and Democrats were dying at the same rate, but once the vaccine came out, and was politicised and undermined by conservative forces, more Democrats took vaccines and their death rate was less, fewer Republicans took the vaccine and their death rate was higher.
"So now you've got a direct link of disinformation leading to the unnecessary death of a person. Part of the reason I went onto TikTok is that two thirds of the people on it are under the age of 20.
"One study done during the height of COVID pointed out that 90 per cent of females aged 11 to 19 in their first half hour on TikTok were exposed to lies about COVID, and two thirds were exposed to lies about the vaccine.
"All you need for evil to triumph, to quote the old cliché, is for good people to do nothing. So I figured I'd better get in there and start doing stuff. What I try to do is be a filter, a conduit, for accurate information."
Dr Karl has a knack for explaining complex information without dumbing it down, which gives him broad appeal according to the head of ABC Science, Jonathan Webb.
"Dr Karl is a force of nature," says Webb.
"Even an everyday conversation with Dr Karl is bursting with energy and laced with surprises. When he's on-air, which he has been regularly now since before many of his listeners were born, that dynamism translates perfectly.
"It's instantly engaging for people of all ages, from dedicated science fans to people who really struggle with it. There are boundless anecdotes, unexpected facts and tangents, heaps of humour, no short answers and absolutely no bullshit. If you've ever met Dr Karl, you'll know that's exactly the same Dr Karl you've heard on the radio. It's not a performance – either that or he is performing 100% of the time!"
Dr Karl has been driven by an insatiable hunger for knowledge since childhood.
"I've always had a strong sense of curiosity," he says.
"As a kid walking up the road, I would look at the grass and the sky and suddenly think, hang on, why is the grass green, why isn't it blue? And why is the sky blue, why isn't it green, or yellow? Even today I'll be walking past a building side and there'll be some tradie using some tool I've never seen or doing some flame work with a purple-coloured flame, and I'll think to myself, wow, a purple flame, not green, not blue, but purple and I've got to find out why. And that's what science is about basically, just asking questions."
The son of Polish holocaust survivors, Karl Kruszelnicki was born in Sweden. He and his parents immigrated to Australia in 1950 and the family spent three years living at the Bonegilla Migrant Centre in Victoria before settling in Wollongong.
Young Karl loved science fiction, speed reading a book a day. He thrived at school and university, ultimately securing degrees in Physics and Mathematics, Medicine and Surgery, a Masters in Bio Medical Engineering plus four years of non-degree study in astrophysics, electrical engineering, computer science and philosophy. He designed and built a machine for eye surgeon Fred Hollows to pick up electrical signals off the human retina and for a while was a filmmaker producing MTV-type films of bands in Papua New Guinea.
Then, in 1981, he decided he wanted to be an astronaut and applied to NASA. While the space agency didn't want him, he soon discovered the ABC did.
"My ABC career happened by accident," he recalls.
"I failed in my application to NASA, they sent me back a letter saying we are full up and we only employ Americans, see you later.
"Then I heard that triple j was doing a show on the launch of the space shuttle, so I rang them up and said, 'I've been following the space shuttle for a long time do you want me to come in and talk about it?'
"They were doing a full coverage, getting landlines across to the US, which was really complicated at the time – nowadays you can watch the launch of a rocket anywhere lying in bed, on your phone.
"So, I went into the ABC studio on the night of the launch but the shuttle didn't go up because a fuel cell failed. Everybody was saying 'what the heck is a fuel cell?' Well, thanks to my physics and engineering background, I knew what a fuel cell was and explained it on air.
"Then I came back a week later, when NASA did actually launch the shuttle. Afterwards we were all having a cup of tea and one guy said, 'I need this hippie tea to cleanse my kidneys' and I said 'well, actually, it's the other way round your kidneys cleanse your blood'.
And he said, 'aha we need you for a show called Great Moments in Science' and that's how my career in media and at the ABC started."
While he chose media rather than medicine as a means of helping people, Dr Karl has received plenty of feedback that his dedication to science education has, as he hoped, made a difference on a broad scale.
"I've love it when people contact me via Twitter and say, 'I've been worrying about this COVID vaccine, but after listening to what you've said I've decided to get vaccinated. I've improved people's lives, and, along the way, even helped some people not go blind and not die," he says.
"Dr" Lucy and Dr Karl solve the mysteries of the world, with science. Only triple j listeners could come up with questions as hairy as these.
"On one occasion on radio, I was talking about middle meningeal artery syndrome. Your temple bone is the thinnest bone in your skull. If you get a blow to your temple the bone will break and then come back again, because it's a bit elastic.
"It won't leave a bruise on the skin. While it might feel a bit sore, where the bones are feels smooth and unbroken — and you can easily think 'oh, I'm alright', but what you don't know is that on the inside of that bone is an artery called the middle meningeal artery.
"When you get a blow to the temple, that artery breaks and starts slowly leaking and over an hour or an hour and a half after the injury, people feel like they want to lie down and they do — and never wake up!
"So, some time after this I heard from a young lady who had fallen badly playing netball, and started to feel tired. She'd remembered me talking on the radio and told her parents 'I've got middle meningeal artery syndrome' and asked them to take her to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney.
"Her parents wondered if she really needed to go to hospital, but when she walked into casualty, she collapsed. They said to the doctor she's got middle meningeal artery syndrome and the doctors cut a hole in her temple to let the blood out and she lived. I'm very proud of that.
"Another time, I was talking about retinal detachment, and I said if you ever notice that suddenly there appears to be a curtain across half your field of view in one eye, then you have detached your retina and you have about six hours to get to an eye hospital.
A couple of years later, a young woman, about 15 years old I think, rang in. She'd heard the broadcast on retinal detachment and was on an athletics camp when she knocked her head — and suddenly a curtain came down on one side of the field of view.
The camp was about four hours out of Melbourne, and she said to her teacher you have to take me to the eye hospital in Melbourne straightaway. The teacher asked why? She said; 'Because Dr Karl said so'. She did have a retinal detachment and they fixed it.
"Similarly, about two years ago I got an email from somebody in America who said they'd also heard me talking about detached retinas and by an amazing coincidence, a bit later, they were talking to an uncle on the phone, and he said, 'I just had this weird thing happen, like a curtain coming across my field of view'. And the person who'd heard me on the radio said you've got six hours to get to a hospital. That's pretty rewarding."
As well as sharing his vast knowledge with a loyal audience on various platforms, Dr Karl is also passionate about inspiring other scientific leaders to follow in his footsteps and commits much of his time to mentoring the next generation of communicators.
"Dr Karl's appeal is broader than most science communicators, or indeed public figures in general, can dream of," says Jonathan Webb.
"On top of that, he works phenomenally hard and almost never stops. As a result, the impact he's made is so large as to be unquantifiable – the conversations he's started, curiosities sparked, careers launched. And now, after more than four decades of broadcasting, that legacy spans generations."
Dr Karl nominates computers and the internet, the evolution of the car engine and the realisation of the seriousness of climate change – which he first reported on in 1981 – as the most notable scientific developments he's witnessed over his lifetime.
"The shift in understanding about climate change from being a conjecture to being a hypothesis to being proved rock solid — and the way that certain parts of the press, even today, still deny it has been 'interesting'," he says.
"And another thing that really impressed me as a discovery was that roughly 1% of the population has psychopathic tendencies. That was really interesting to discover that!"
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And there are still so many questions the ever-curious Dr Karl wants answered.
"The discovery of what dark matter is and dark energy, black holes, wormholes and the missing eight dimensions of the universe. Plus, fusion engines, so we can become a proper space-going race, and cancer vaccines.
"I want all of those advances — and immortality. Death is only a new invention you know — programmed death happens only in multicellular creatures, but for most of the time on our planet, 3.8 to 1 billion years ago, life has been single-celled creatures that would grow to a certain size and split into two into four into eight.
There wasn't programmed death. Now if we can find those programs and switch them off, we're heading for being able to live for 500 to 5,000 years while wearing a fit and healthy 18 to 25-year-old body. That'd be good. Because then we would have consequences for our actions … but then maybe not."
This story is the latest in a series on ABC Backstory celebrating the ABC's 90 years
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Dr Karl Kruszelnicki on 40 years talking about science on the ABC, fighting fake news and saving a life – ABC News