DR KARL: Words of Wisdom
Dr Karl Sven Woytek Sas Konkovitch Matthew Kruszelnicki, popularly known as Dr Karl, is a science communicator, Ig Nobel recipient for research into belly button fluff, and the man with most of the answers (for the 5% of the universe we’re familiar with).
Speaking with Dr Karl is a practice is self restraint. As a kid I read his books with fascination and found myself questioning the world from a new perspective. The thing is questions breed questions and while Dr Karl is up to book forty of answers with his newest release The Doctor, there are still plenty more. Luckily, he was happy to answer a few from The Pin too.
THE PIN. Tell us a bit about your childhood and where you grew up?
DR KARL. I grew up in a refugee camp in Australia, in Bonegilla, near Albury on the border of New South Wales and Victoria. Afterwards my family moved to Sydney, then Wollongong where I grew up. I was educated in Wollongong and worked at the steelworks there then moved to New Guinea for a couple of years. After that I came back to Sydney and moved around. I did a whole bunch of things, I was a roadie for rock’n’roll bands, a taxi driver, car mechanic and a labourer, then drifted back into science, engineering, medicine, the media and test driving four wheel drives and now here I am.
After your family left the refugee camp and settled in Australia, did your parents maintain any of the culture they had come from and share it with you?
K. Bits of it they tried to, and bits of it my mother was too traumatised to talk about. They wanted me to know, understand, and appreciate my Polish background but I was bullied at school a lot. I went out of my way to try and deny my Polish background and stopped speaking the language. It didn’t make any difference at all, I was still bullied. So I ended up not being able to speak Polish and still being bullied.
Was there a moment where you became proud of your Polish background?
K. Yes and no. It’s tricky, I’m proud of all the backgrounds we humans have. I’m not particularly nationalistic or very competitive. In fact I’m probably the most uncompetitive person you know. I do appreciate the differences and the strengths that different cultures and nationalities can bring to the mix of what makes us human. I wouldn’t say any are better than the other.
What I’ve learnt and what happens in life is you’re born, you live and you die. What matters is the ride you have along the way. So many people don’t have a good ride, which is sad because each time a day passes you’ll never get that day back again. I’m not competitive, or nationalistic, but I like having fun. Is it bad that I’m not nationalistic? [laughs]
Not at all, nobody comes out on top by believing they are better than the next person...So you’ve just released book number forty, The Doctor, what keeps you questioning the world and excited to learn?
K. Firstly, you’re better off alive than dead. Secondly, there is so much good stuff happening it’s great to be part of it. And thirdly, a subset of that good stuff is all of the other good stuff. These scientists keep on discovering, it’s just amazing! We don’t know where we came from and we don’t know more than five per-cent of the universe. Twenty-five per-cent is mysterious dark matter, we’re sure it’s there but we don’t know what it is and then seventy per-cent is dark energy and we’re very sure it’s there but we don’t know what it is. There are these great questions out there - and some answers - but it’s just this great sea of stuff we have to find out and discover that will in some way benefit us further down the line.
When you were putting the book together were there particular topics you were particularly keen to explore?
K. There were a couple of big ones I thought I had to do, because they are good for people to know about, which I thought were enormous fun. The big topics were gravitational waves and blockchain and bit-coin. Are you familiar with either?
Definitely bit-coin, I’ve done my homework.
K. The thing about bit-coin is to have a virtual currency you have to have the way to prove that when you’re dealing with somebody you’re really dealing with them. Secondly, when you’re making a transaction that the transaction details are not interfered with or changed. That’s fairly easy to work out how to do. The third part, double spending, that was a really hard part. The mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto, he, she or they, managed to work out how to do that. It’s going to be really revolutionary because it means banks are at threat of being chopped out of the equation. It has the potential to be a truly disruptive technology.
Were there any things you learnt while researching the book that surprised you?
K. Yeah! I had no idea how the blockchain worked, it’s really complex. I’ve tried to do it as simply as possible. There are people who make anything from $500 - $1,000 a week doing the blockchain for virtual currencies. As a side effect they generate enough heat from the electricity to heat their whole house. The other side effect is they’re using so much electricity that they get visited by the police to make sure they’re not growing marijuana.
Coming back to The Pin. Do you think race is simply a concept, or is it an actual thing?
K. I don’t know, what do you define race as?
I’ve looked at it as just a concept, as a way to categorise people, but I do know that scientifically speaking race can exist.
K. It’s tricky. Looking at it from the point of view of diseases, suppose you carried the gene for cystic fibrosis and you’d prefer to not have children with cystic fibrosis then you’d have a child with a Chinese person. Chinese people hardly ever have the gene for it, does that mean there is a difference between Chinese people and Anglo people from Europe?
The word is so tricky now that I don’t even know what it means anymore. If you’re looking at genetic differences and you compare Chinese from the Pacific Coast of China with Anglo people on the Atlantic Ocean it turns out that the genetic differences between Anglo people and Chinese people is less than the genetic differences within the Anglos and within the Chinese, not more. So genetically speaking, the average Chinese is very close to the average Anglo from Europe.
DNA tests for genealogical and ethnic background have become really popular. How accurate can these tests really be?
K. I wrote about them in my 36th book, House of Karls. How accurate? Not really, they basically exist to get money out of you and they’ve succeeded in that. If you send in three samples under three different names you’ll get three slightly different, or very different diagnoses. Especially because of how you collect it. My wife is involved with forensic testing and if you’ve ever seen any of those forensic shows on television they put on one set of gloves and they wear them for the rest of the day. My wife, on a typical day, would go through 24 sets of gloves in a two hour examination.
Now that you have your own children, do you celebrate any Polish traditions?
K. Only one, which is that we have Christmas on Christmas Eve and the advantage of that is they get to have two Christmas celebrations! That’s about it, we’ve been to Poland but don’t know too much about it. I do like pierogi (polish dumplings).
Even Poland is an interesting concept. It went from being one of the most powerful countries in Europe and then it vanished for 123 years. It vanished out of existence then just popped back again, then got swallowed up by the Russians and now is back again. It’s odd to have a concept of something that comes and goes. Sorry I’m not very definite! [laughs].
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
DR KARL. Never have sex with anybody who has more problems with you. The sex is great but you pay for it...Oh, and don’t play poker with somebody called Dock. Mate, you’re going to lose every time.
Also, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. That’s true. Having fun is half the fun..
- This interview has been edited and condensed
Photo credit: PanMacmillan Australia