Building peace in the minds of men and women

Dr Karl: if you go with the Science, you end up with a more peaceful society

13 December 2019

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© Photo courtesy of Ross Coffey

Karl Kruszelnicki or “Dr Karl” has been a science communicator for over 30 years, using television, radio, podcasts, print media, books and social media to make science accessible to all. He received the 2019 UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science in recognition of his longstanding commitment to fire up people’s curiosity for science and share his passion for the subject. Convinced that understanding science is essential to empower people, he is generous with his time for public engagements, particularly weekly Q&A sessions with schools around the world. He was kind enough to engage with us for a UNESCO Q&A.

UNESCO: “Dr Karl”, first of all, congratulations on winning this prize. You have been communicating science for over 30 years, and you can now boast a sizable and diverse audience. So, as a starter, could you tell us a bit more about your main target group? Who are you popularizing science for?

Dr. Karl: My main target group is everyone with a sense of curiosity!! Basically anyone who asks questions from their heart. I take all comers. (Tradespeople, and children of 8 years old and older, seem to especially like my stuff). I love the idea of people swapping stories over a cup of tea – with my science stories being part of that discussion.

UNESCO: It’s often the case in science journalism that communication with the audience is a one-way exchange. For instance, journalists broadcast news about scientific break-throughs or developments that are deemed of general interest to their audience. But your method of communication is very much an interaction with your audience, we’ve seen the call-ins of questions you then answer on the spot or your interactions on social media. Can you give us an example of how this deeper interaction benefits scientific communi-cation?

Dr. Karl: The best thing about first listening to the audience, is that you can give them exactly what they want. And that means I can work out what to add, and what they need, to make sense of my answer. One time a carpenter rang in with a strange observation. It was hot. He was sand-ing wood with ultra-fine sandpaper – and the sawdust created a thin “mist” in the air, that floated around the room. When he breathed out he could see his own breath in the air. Before that, in his whole life, he had only seen his own breath in the air on very cold days. But this was a hot day!  So what was going on? We worked through the explanation together. The answer was (in part) “Nucleation Centres”. If I had come to him and started telling him about Nucleation Centres, he wouldn’t have been interested. But because of his observation, and personal question, he wanted to learn more.

UNESCO: Given this more direct interaction, what is your sense of your audience’s un-derstanding of science? How have their questions and scientific knowledge developed over time?

Dr. Karl:    
Two observations: 

First, a long-term view: A few centuries ago, scientists were seen as the Searchers of Truth and Bringers of Wonder. Science and romance and art were not separate concepts. But more recently there has been massive and well-funded denialist campaigns (Big Tobacco, Big Alcohol, Big Fossil Fuel, etc) against basic scientific findings. I like being able to directly address the genuine concern from the public about scientific credibility and integrity that gets generated by these big ‘Anti-Science’ campaigns. 

Second, I give a few dozen public fun science talks every year to large audiences. Ten years ago, about 5% of the questions after the shows came from children under the age of ten. Today, it’s about 90%. I have no idea why, but it’s a very welcome trend. And it makes me optimistic about the future!

UNESCO: Is there any one recurring question from your audience that keeps being asked? 

Dr. Karl: Yes, "Why does the full moon on the horizon look so much bigger than the full moon a few hours later – when it’s high in the sky?” Which is tough because none of the current explana-tions for this observation entirely convince me. Physics tells us the moon should look smaller. But it doesn’t. So, what is going on? The extra thickness of air between us and the full moon on the horizon acts as a lens and that should make it look smaller, not bigger. The extra distance between your eye and the full moon on the horizon (about 7,000 km) should also make it look smaller. But that darn Full Moon clearly looks bigger.
The claim that seeing other objects near the full moon on the horizon (such as trees or buildings) makes it appear artificially bigger – but this phenomenon still happens to pilots flying across the featureless oceans.  Which is why I’m looking out for a better explanation.

At the other extreme away from common questions, I once had Kip Thorne and Roger Penrose as guests on my Triple J Science Q&A hour-long radio show. A caller rang in with a particularly deep question about Black Holes. Kip Thorne was intrigued, and asked, “Are you a Cosmology Ph.D. student?”. The caller replied, “Nah, mate, I’m just a forkie”. I then had to explain, that a “forkie” is Aussie slang for “I drive a fork-lift truck”. 

I respect thoughtful curious minds and they turn up all over the place!

UNESCO: Are there questions that you used to answer one way, but that you now an-swer differently because of changes or advances in scientific understanding? Public opinion?

Dr. Karl: Over the last third of a century, there have been major changes in our science knowledge. So definitely yes – my answers change with new information. I’m lucky that I have always been happy to say when I am wrong and correct my mistakes. And I’m also happy to say when I just don’t know.  A few examples of the huge change in our knowledge include – Dark Matter, Dark Energy, the Bacteria that live inside us (and that outnumber our own human cells), the mapping of the human DNA, our understanding of the solar system and the discovery of thousands of exoplanets and more.

UNESCO: You have a distinguished breadth of knowledge in a variety of subjects, with experience ranging from mathematics and physics, to biomedical engineering, via surgi-cal medicine. Furthermore, you work to identify and fill-in your own knowledge gaps by studying other fascinating subjects and cutting-edge scientific fields. What is the thought process you go through to identify these gaps? How do you choose which subject you will focus on next?

Dr. Karl: The first part of the process is that I was lucky enough to get 16 years of University Education — for free. Back then, Australia saw Education as a worthwhile investment in the future. And I believe that an educated society is a gift for the community. The motto of the Univer-sity of Lvov at which my father studied is “The State glories in the Educated Citizen”. My educa-tion gives me the broad background needed to begin to understand the Universe around us – from quantum to cosmology, metallurgy to life, and everything in between. I am broad in my knowledge, and that gives me advantages as a generalist who can apply knowledge in lots of different fields. And I respect the opinion of the majority of the scientific minds, in each of their specialty areas. 
The second part is that I read about $10,000-worth of scientific literature each year: Nature, Cosmos, New Scientist, Aviation Week & Space Technology, Science, Car & Driver, Australian Potato, Road & Track, Scientific American, Astronomy, Circuit, the journal of electricians to name several. This keeps me up to date. Of course, there will always be gaps in my knowledge.

The third part relates to my accidental ‘Special Skill,’ which may not be as impressive as a ‘Su-per Power’. By a lovely coincidence, what I find interesting, often seems to resonate with the general public. I research and write stories based on what I find interesting. These short pieces then evolve into stories for my books. This story writing process helps fill in the gaps in my knowledge. In general, it takes me one hour of preparation to generate one minute of written story. It then takes another hour to turn that content into one minute of live stage performance. Stage is very different from print.

UNESCO: Is there any particular field you find most challenging to explain? Most fun to explain? One that you find difficult to understand yourself, as a scientist? 

Dr. Karl: Quantum still hurts my head. I really don’t deeply understand “time”. Only a few weeks ago, I found out that Energy is NOT Conserved in our Expanding Universe. And how do inani-mate chemicals turn into life? And where is “consciousness” stored? And why do we cry “emo-tional tears”? And don’t forget - I still want to really know why is the Full Moon bigger on the horizon?

UNESCO: Where do you think science communicators should focus their efforts to im-prove the public’s role in building a more peaceful and sustainable society?  

Dr. Karl: First, obviously, we should all try to build a more peaceful and sustainable society. And we should have been doing this though all of our past history, and into all of our future. How? I don’t know for others. For me, I ignore opinions, and stick to the facts. Just trim down to the science. Second, it’s harder to add the social context for any one issue. Occasionally, it’s very clear and obvious, but far more frequently, it’s obscure. Sometimes, you have to wait for years, or even decades, for the full context to show itself.

On average, if you go with the Science, you end up with a more peaceful and sustainable society. But besides science, we need all the arts, including painters, philosophers, writers, poets, sculptors, and musicians  to help us look at ourselves – and to provide a moral compass.

UNESCO: What is your take on the way science will be popularized in years to come? What method or what approach will be used more?

Dr. Karl: Some things will not change. A “story” is universal. The history of the story goes back thousands of years. The Australian indigenous people have oral stories that have been transmitted accurately for over ten thousand years. We know this because they describe the rising of the oceans at the end of the last ice age, and we have mapped what lies under the ocean. So we can match the geographical features with what the stories describe.

But change is universal too. Instagram, Twitter and Facebook all add something to the populari-sation of science. In my latest book, Dr Karl’s Random Road Trip Through Science, I have added Augmented Reality. You download the ‘modestly’ named Dr. Karl app, and aim your phone’s camera at the book. In the case of the story about the asteroid that nearly wiped out humanity on Halloween 2015, you can see an actual video of the asteroid zipping past. There are dozens of these videos scattered through this book – and this technologically-enhanced storytelling adds to the understanding and interest in the popularisation of science.

UNESCO: Thank you for your time and, once again, congratulations on winning the 2019 UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science! Is there anything else you would like to add? 

Dr. Karl: World-wide, we have had three decades to fix Climate Change. There are no major new technologies needed to fix Climate Change – only a new mindset for our politics.

Interview by Christina Reed