Dr Karl Kruszelnicki talks being a refugee, his infinite curiosity about the universe… and The Bachelorette.
I was a refugee. I was two years old when I came to Australia, to a refugee camp in Bonegilla, on the border of NSW and Victoria. Eventually we moved to Sydney. My mother worked as a housekeeper to a doctor and we saved enough to buy half a house with another family in Wollongong, where I grew up.
I was bullied through most of school – because I had a funny name, ate funny food; I didn’t have white bread for lunch. The cultural battle was between the Protestants and the Catholics, but when a bunch of refugees came along they united against the refugees.
My father spoke 12 languages and my mother spoke about seven. Once we were in a cobbler’s shop and my parents and I were talking in a bunch of languages and there was this little country kid from the Catholic school in the shop with his parents and they pushed him forward and he came out with his prepared speech: “Shut up you bloody wog and speak English!” And in that moment I dropped all the other languages in an effort to be liked by my fellow students. Now I only speak English.
I tried to separate myself from my parents to be as similar as possible to the people who hated me. But it made no difference – they still hated me. So I was separated from my parents and I was still bullied. Also, my parents didn’t like to talk about the concentration camps, so that closed a whole lot of their life experiences. They were changed by it, by seeing some of the terrible things that people do. I also wasn’t really appreciative of how lucky I was to be living in Australia where people weren’t shooting at us. I got bullied at school, but I still had a school to go to.
I had so much curiosity about the world around me. When I was eight or nine someone gave me a book on astronomy with lots of pictures, and I was astonished to realise how big NSW was, and then how big Australia was, and then how big the world was, and that there were other worlds in our solar system and 300 thousand billion stars in our galaxy. I had a sense of awe and wonder at that moment that has never left me to this day. I’m still astonished at how big the universe is.
When I was 16 I was studying physics and mathematics at university. I was the youngest in my class. I stayed at uni for 15 years.I had a sense of curiosity and that was a time when Australia saw education not as an intolerable burden upon the state, but rather as a wise and useful investment in the future of the state.
My university education was free. So I got a degree in physics and mathematics and then I did a masters, then a non-degree year of study in astrophysics and then a Master of Biomedical Engineering where I built a machine with Fred Hollows to pick up signals off the human retina and then a couple of non-degree years in electrical engineering, computer science and philosophy and then degrees in medicine and degrees in surgery. I was so lucky.
My failed attempt to become an astronaut led me to my career in the media. Back in 1981 I wrote a letter to NASA and said, “I’ve got degrees in physics, maths and biomedical engineering, can I become an astronaut?” They said, “No, we’re all full up and we only employ Americans anyway.” Shortly after that, [radio station] Double J were looking to do something on the space shuttle. So, I went down and talked to them about it. Afterwards we were having a cup of tea and one of the guys said, “I really need this cup of tea to clean my kidneys” and I said, “You’ve got it the wrong way around. It’s not the tea that cleans your kidneys, but rather your kidneys clean 250 litres of blood a day and they put out one-and-a-half kilograms of salt and then they put it all back in except for 80,000 grams because God made a mistake and we are fish gone wrong.” And he said, “We need you for a show called Great Moments in Science.” It was a pre-recorded little segment at first, and then it evolved into the Q&A show and I’ve been doing it for a third of a century.
I guess my best achievement is getting the kids through being born and into school and into their careers. Alice has an honours degree in design and textile technology. Karl is involved in the money markets, he also got first-class honours in mathematics. And the third one, Lola, is in Europe on her gap year and we are missing her terribly. It’s all about the next generation. When I go down to vote at the primary school I’m not voting for what will benefit me, but what will benefit my children.
If I could tell my 16-year-old self anything, it would be: pay attention to the world around you. And if you don’t understand it, don’t stop until you do. There is still so much we don’t know.
I’m on a futile trip to understand everything in the universe. And even though I know it’s futile I’m having a lot of fun. I’ve written 44 books. I’m always curious about everything, but that also means I get bewildered. Just in my list of Things I Should Look at When I Get Around to It, there’s why humans tell lies, how easy it is to make a nuclear bomb, why we smile, how come certain frogs poison themselves, how you should behave when giving people bad news, the latest on champagne bubbles, why chocolate is so good, why do fingers grip so well, flesh-eating bacteria… And that’s just stuff from one day. I do get to a stage where I can’t brain anymore, so I go and watch The Bachelorette or Jane the Virgin.
I was 32 when I met Mary, but we didn’t get married until 2006. When I rang up Mary to propose I was in an emergency in the Himalayas injecting opiates into this young woman. The woman nearly died, and it scared me. I thought, if she could die, I could die and here I am not married – I love Mary to pieces, I love everyone to pieces, let’s get married. We deliberately got married on the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, so that the sun would not set on Norway, and it would not set on our marriage.
Life is just about perfect, I think. I’ve made mistakes along the way, but without mistakes you don’t make anything. I’ve worked hard, but I’m very lucky. Luck counts for a lot. Most people don’t realise when they’ve got enough, and they keep on working to get more and more and they miss out on other things like family and friends. I’ve got enough. We’ve got two cars and I’ve got a bicycle and we own our own house. Mate, bloody set!
First published in The Big Issue Australia #557, 2018.
Interview by Katherine Smyrk
» Dr Karl’s book, Karl, the Universe and Everything, is out now.