Listen: Dr Karl chats science with Justin Rouillon.
You could forgive Dr Karl for putting his feet up after a long career, but the veteran science broadcaster and author is working harder than ever.
With the release of his 46th book, Dr Karl’s Surfing Safari Through Science, comes a weird and wonderful treasure trove of stories you’ll find hard to put down. From flying spiders to disappearing backsides, the stories are fascinating, and as Dr Karl told 96five, story is the key to it all.
I first discovered Dr Karl Kruszelnicki in the mid 90’s with his weekly science spot on Triple J, and wondered how he could rattle off a response to any scientific question from the talkback callers.
“The first part is you need a good, broad, general education. The second part is by reading your way through about $10,000 worth of scientific literature year in and year out. And thirdly, but this is the most important thing, you turn the knowledge into formal stories.”
“You don’t just let the information run around in your head, you create a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. To give a two minute explanation on anything is usually based on ten hours of turning that topic into a story.”
That broad, general education that Dr Karl talks about might be that little bit harder to attain these days though, with the restructuring of the tertiary education sector.
“When I went through university the governments saw education as a worthwhile investment in the future, so I got my 16 years of university education for free.”
Those 16 years include degrees in physics, maths and biomedical engineering, which helped Dr Karl invent a machine that picked up electrical signals from the human retina for Dr Fred Hollows. He also studied degrees in medicine and surgery, as well as non-degrees in a range of other areas.
“I felt I had gaps in my knowledge so to round me off I studied astro-physics, electrical engineering, computer science and philosophy.”
It’s that broad knowledge that comes out in Dr Karl’s media appearances but also in his books, and Surfing Safari Through Science is no exception. In the usual Dr Karl way, the book is super accessible, with my six year old son loving the story about the flying spiders, as well as the Dr Karl holograms that appear in conjunction with the modestly titled Dr Karl app.
Flying spiders? It sounds like something something out of a horror movie, but as Dr Karl explains, it’s all to do with the earth’s electrical field. Make sure to download the app and Dr Karl will pop up to tell you all about these little red spiders.
“The spiders can actually fly – they can fly a distance of 1,000 kilometres at an altitude of around four kilometres. Most people have heard of the earth’s magnetic field, but we also have a natural electric field, which the spiders utilise to fly.”
This electrical field is maintained by the tens of thousands of electrical storms that happen everyday on our planet. The short story is that the ground usually carries a negative charge, whilst the upper atmosphere carries a positive charge. During a thunderstorm and lightning this is reversed with the ground becoming positive and the bottom of the storm cloud being negative.
When these spiders let loose with some silk from their spinnerets the silk picks up a negative charge. And with this charge to their silk threads the spiders can literally go up, up and away using the earth’s electric field.
It’s a bird…it’s a plane….nope it’s just a flying spider. Somebody call Batman and let him know that super spiders are on the loose!
There’s a heap of other suitably impressive stories woven (spider pun anyone?) throughout Surfing Safari Through Science. Apparently we’re running out of sand. Know a conspiracy theorist? Hook them up with the chapter on why 5G won’t hurt even the biggest skeptic.
There’s a great read about the impending death of the ‘burner’ – cars fuelled by combustion engines as well as the economic impact of women’s work.
If you have a budding scientist in the house, or you just love a good yarn from one of Australia’s brightest minds, make sure you put Dr Karl’s Surfing Safari Through Science atop the Christmas reading list.