He’s known as Australia’s most popular scientist.
He’s been awarded the status of National Living Treasure by the National Trust for his career in popularising science.
But Dr Karl Kruszelnicki is at pains to point out he’s not actually a scientist — well, not anymore.
“I’m no longer a (working) scientist — in the same way that I used to be a TV weatherman, a doctor in a kids’ hospital, a physicist, an engineer and a taxi driver. I don’t do those anymore. I’m a science journalist and writer,” he explained.
And a pretty prolific one at that.
Kruszelnicki has just published his 44th book, Vital Science (Macmillan Australia, $34.99), which tackles the big questions such as why people tell lies, why whales are so big and is cockroach milk really the next superfood?
“The scientists do all the hard work for me. I just turn their stuff into plain English,” he said. “There are just so many amazing stories out there, so I’ll keep writing one or two books a year.”
His weekly science hour on Triple J is the radio station’s longest-running segment and he’s also been an enthusiastic embracer of the podcast format, with shows such as Sleek Geeks with Adam Spencer and his latest, Shirtloads of Science.
“Things are changing enormously and, at the moment, podcasts are what is happening, but who knows what’s going to happen in 10 to 20 years? It’s all up for grabs. But I predict a long life for the book. Like the wheel, it does its job magnificently,” he said.
Kruszelnicki lives in Sydney with wife Mary and the youngest of their three grown-up children. He is also perhaps as known for his colourful shirts as he is for his passion for science.
“I remember when I was about 16, I was walking down the street (in Wollongong) in winter and everyone was grey and gloomy and then I saw this woman wearing bright colours and it made everyone smile. I thought if happiness was so easy to get, let’s do it and I started wearing bright clothes.”
For the past couple of decades, his famous shirts — which he views as “stage clothing” — have been made by his wife.
“They are far too precious to wear around the house but I wear them when I’m in public, that is my duty,” he said with a smile.
Typical Saturday morning
They often start with a walk down to the ocean or a rock pool for a swim. Then my wife and I will probably have a slow breakfast together. Weekends are all about just hanging around, catching up and being together.
I always carry a piece of fruit with me. I try to avoid high-fat foods, although I have a secret hankering for chocolate.
Spaghetti bolognese. I follow the old rule of adding time, as opposed to thyme, although herbs are good, too. I let it cook slowly, for between five and seven hours, making sure I give it a regular stir.
On my bedside table
I read my way through $10,000 worth of scientific literature every year, so on my bedside table are copies of New Scientist, Scientific American, Aviation Week & Space Technology, Focus, Harper’s Magazine and Smithsonian. There’s also a book, The Edge of Memory by Patrick Nunn, which celebrates the spoken word and stories that our ancestors have passed down from one generation to the next.
Fantasy place to live
I am very rational so I went to a lot of trouble to work out where to live, so I’m already in the best place in Australia! In Sydney, there are three different climates and I made a logical decision to live in the zone between the ocean and the first hill because it’s much cooler. We’ve been here in the height of summer when it’s been 28C and we speak to my mother-in-law in Campbelltown (further inland) and the temperature there is 20C hotter.
I like listening to blues. I was actually a roadie for (American singer/songwriter) Bo Diddley. I’m also very fond of classical music. There’s a recording of Westhoff’s Imitation of Bells (Imitazione delle Campane) by (British violinist) Daniel Hope that gets me into a hallucinatory state of mind and I’m able to write really well after listening to it a million times!
Happiness at home
Dinner with the family. Playing board games and card games with the family. Going for a swim at the beach with the family. It all revolves around family. When you die, the people who will cry most at your funeral are your family, so you may as well invest in them early on!
Secret domestic skill
I am the master dishwasher packer. We have two dishwashers so we never have a load of dishes piling up. I can also get a very high-density stack of dishes inside but they come out as good as new and never chip. I also use a brush to clean off the food debris before I put them into the dishwasher and then run it on the economy cycle, which saves water and electricity.
My favourite things
In 1981, I wrote a letter to NASA and told them I would like to become an astronaut. I told them I had degrees in mathematics, physics and engineering, which would soon be joined by degrees in medicine and surgery, plus several non-degree years of study in computer science, astrophysics, electricity engineering and philosophy. They sent me back this letter of rejection, signed by an actual human, in which they informed me that they were full up and, in any case, only employed Americans. I was very disappointed. But I still have the letter as a memento because what makes you as you are at any given time is not just your successes but also your failures, and how you deal with those failures. So, I’ve kept that to remind me of that major failure in my life! I would have loved to have been an astronaut and seen Earth from space.
I was in Tibet last year and saw this little solar-powered prayer wheel. According to the Tibetans, when it turns it makes prayers not just for you but for everyone in the universe, which I thought was a nice philosophy. So I bought one and it now sits on my veranda where it spins and gives out good vibes. Mary and I love to travel. On this trip, we took the train from Beijing to Tibet and also went to Mongolia, which was amazing. I’ve also been down to Antarctica three times and inside the Arctic Circle three times. Mary and I actually got married in Kirkenes, in far-northeastern Norway, in 2006. We got married inside the Arctic Circle on the longest day of the year, as a scientific metaphor: just as the sun did not set at Kirkenes that day, so the love would not set on our marriage.
My wife and I were in Malaysia last February as I’d been invited to do a speaking tour of various universities and schools by the Malaysian Government. I’m a passionate believer in education as it’s a way of making your life better and it’s always interesting how people do education in different parts of the world. While we were there, it was Chinese New Year, and there were these large plastic pineapples hanging everywhere. My wife said we had to buy some, so we’ve now got some large plastic pineapples in our backyard in Sydney. They still look as good as new. I think they’re probably going to outlast the pyramids, to be honest. When I look at them, I think of Chinese New Year and food and celebrations and people just being happy.
My (Polish) father (Ludwik) loved indigenous art from Australia and New Zealand and he carved this tiki. We have an art wall at the side of our house with various ceramic and wooden pieces on it and I’ve had New Zealanders come past and ask me where I got this piece from. When I tell them my father carved it, they are very impressed with the high quality of the work. My father was a very well-educated man. He had a master’s degree in economics and also spoke 12 languages and wrote the script for the first Three Musketeers movie in Hollywood. But in Australia, he worked as a labourer. But he had managed to get out of the concentration camps alive so was perfectly happy (here) because no one was trying to kill him. My father actually thought I was a failure because I was always changing careers.
I bought my first Atomic cappuccino maker about 30 years ago for $30. It eventually died, by which time a replacement cost a lot more. But it is a very beautiful Italian machine which reminds me of that old saying by Oscar Wilde that if you try to make something beautiful, it is often ugly, but if you try to make something useful, it is often beautiful. This machine is such a superb melding of function and form. It works beautifully and is so elegant that it fills my heart with joy every time I use it.
I love hanging my clothes on the washing line. Did you know that in the US, 14 per cent of total electricity consumption is used to dry clothes, and in movies, people who dry their clothes on the line are looked down upon as poor trash? It doesn’t make any sense. My secret is to turn everything inside out so the ultraviolet light from the sun will kill any bacteria but not fade the clothes. Why so many people choose to use a clothes dryer, which is an inferior method to dry their clothes, is totally beyond me.