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"Imagine being in a situation where there was nothing that you had any curiosity about."
Conversations
24 July 2014

Dr Karl has the answer

Interview by Daniel Teitelbaum
Photography by Toby Burrows

Daniel Teitelbaum on Dr Karl Kruszelnicki

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki is renowned for wearing strange shirts. What may have at started as an idiosyncrasy has become a symbol of childlike curiosity, of the joy and wonder contained in all life; from the vastness of the universe to a chicken’s egg, or a glob of snot.

Dr Karl’s thirst for knowledge is unquenchable. To our benefit, his desire to share is much the same. For more than 30 years (or 15 elephant pregnancies) he has answered the most obscure scientific questions on radio, hosted television series including Quantum and Sleek Geeks, and written 34 books (the atomic number of selenium) on scientific curiosities. Dr Karl has spent most of his life indulging and encouraging our need to inquire.

Before he became a popular scientist, Dr Karl earned degrees in astrophysics, medicine, mathematics and biomedical engineering. He explored life as a roadie for Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, was a TV weatherman for Channel Seven, a car mechanic and a taxi driver—during which he drove the 250,000 kilometres (equivalent of six times around the equator). He also managed to squeeze in a senate campaign.

In 2002, Dr Karl won the Harvard University Ig Noble Prize for his explanation of why bellybutton lint is most often blue. He was awarded Australian Father of the Year in 2003, and in 2012, declared a National Living Treasure. He also has a main belt asteroid named after him—the 18412 Kruszelnicki, and has toured 15 out of the 17 Australian deserts. Currently, Dr Karl is the Julius Sumner Miller Fellow; a title which bestows upon him the mission to spread the good word about science and its benefits.

Right now, a food vendor on the streets of India with a smartphone has better access to information than the president of the United States did 30 years ago. But Dr Karl doesn’t feel he will become obsolete. As our access to information increases, the way in which it is communicated makes all the difference to how we are moved.

For Dr Karl, the search for truth is a morally important activity and an essential element of a healthy society. When it comes to science, it is common to feel out of our depth, to think that scientific inquiry is reserved for specialised professionals. But this is at odds with the most basic motivation for the practice of science—to pursue our innate curiosity. Dr Karl’s passion for science acknowledges, validates and encourages our need to ask.

Socrates said, “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” Dr Karl is an eternal student, and for this reason, one of our greatest teachers. He has inspired many with his humble curiosity and unashamedly adventurous spirit. I started by wearing a strange shirt.

This story originally ran in issue #39 of Dumbo Feather

DANIEL TEITELBAUM: Dr Karl, is it okay if I record you?

DR KARL: Yeah, go for it man.

I’m going to hide the phone, because I’ve learned from Game of Knowns that what this can do to intimacy is catastrophic.

Yeah. I’ll turn my phone off actually. There we go, and it’s off. Nice shirt.

Thank you! I went to an op shop yesterday because I thought I couldn’t sit across from you in a plain shirt…

Is that silk? Devil to dry. I love silk. It’s beautifully done.

Yeah, I think it’s kind of imperial. I didn’t have anything else in my wardrobe, so I had to!

[Laughs] that’s very kind of you.

I like your shirt. How do you pick?

My wife mainly picks them. If I particularly like a material, she’ll get that. Sometimes we buy them from overseas and when they arrive you suddenly realise they’re a lot more faded than shown. When you email them, they say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re working on that. You can send it back for a refund.’ What, all the way to America? Wrack off, hairy legs! It’s a shame. I’ve got some Doctor Who material, but it’s very faded.

Is that one of your favourite television programs?

No, comedy is probably my favourite.

Who do you like?

Everybody. I just like being surprised.

I love Monty Python.

We tried Monty Python with the kids. They didn’t get it. It was a different era. They laughed at the “dead parrot” stories… I do admire South Park. That’s very good.

Yeah, that’s very good. A little bit twisted. I like its satire.

The creators are rationalists, which I like. Stick with facts. Avoid opinions. I tend to follow the rule that TV is not for watching, but for making, so I don’t watch a lot of TV.

You enjoy making it?

I actually enjoy making radio better. Radio’s really easy ’cause all you need is a producer, a button, a talent and you’re in business. TV is bigger than Ben-Hur. You’ve got to have the make-up, the lights, the noise boys, the props. The whole thing just takes too long. Each week I manage to squeeze in about 11 radio shows, two TV pre-records and one audio pre-record. I wouldn’t be able to do that much output on TV. On the other hand, TV is more influential.

So it’s important to you what kind of impact your TV and radio has?

Well actually I gave up the best job I had in my life—working as a doctor in a kid’s hospital—to go into the media. It was after A Current Affair decided there were two sides to the vaccination debate and as a result of this misinformation, kids started dying of whooping cough, which they hadn’t done for 20 years. I was in the hospital when a kid died—directly because of Channel Nine. It’s like saying, ‘The astronomers might believe that the earth is round and goes around the sun, but really, every second time we do the story, we should argue that the earth is flat and that God put an alabaster dome over it, and some blue carpet on the inside, held it down with some gaffer tape… ’

[Laughs].

‘… and there’s fireflies living in the carpet. What the astronomers think they’re seeing are just fireflies!’ This is just ludicrous. That’s what they did with the vaccination story, and that’s what they’re doing with climate change—trying to muddy the waters. That’s why I went into the media, to do public good. I don’t have any power. Politicians have power. I ran for politics, but I failed, so all I’ve got is influence. I use it as well as I can.

This story originally ran in issue #39 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #39 of Dumbo Feather

So influence is important to you in order to get rid of these misconceptions?

I just want to leave a better world. I don’t want babies dying of whooping cough. I can’t see who on earth benefited except for a TV show that was able to sell more dog food, because in between the ads for the dog food, they ran some rubbish and lies about vaccination.

Does it make you angry?

Yes and no. It’s sort of a counter-productive emotion. I don’t want to sound like Spock in Star Trek

[Laughs].

… but you’ve only got a certain amount of time and energy.

Many of the people who are saying inaccurate things are not evil, they’re just misguided. I’m trying to work out the most efficient way to bring them to enlightenment.

Anger doesn’t necessarily help. It’s a pointless emotion in that regard. God I sound like Spock.

I’ve read a few interviews with you where you mention you’ve struggled a little bit as a “facts man” to speak emotionally?

Well it’s hard growing up with parents who had their emotions all bottled up because of being through the wars and seeing terrible things, like people killing other people and eating their brains—’cause that was the only part of their body that had any fat. That sort of stuff leaves you damaged. My parents were byproducts of war. That, combined with being bullied meant I didn’t have a lot of friends to be emotional with.

Tell me a bit about growing up in Australia.

I was just a wog kid in Wollongong at a school with mostly Anglos. The big argument there was between the Catholics and the Protestants—but the wogs were a common enemy! My bike tyres would be let down every third day. It just got sad after a while. Somebody hated me, and they let me know all the way through my five years of high school.

Is it something you leave in the past?

You are your memories to some degree. But you don’t want to just live in the past, and you don’t want to never progress to a better mental, emotional, physical and financial situation.

What music did you like when you were growing up?

Oh all sorts of stuff. Classical, rock… I still like a very wide range. I just discovered that I missed out on the complete Beethoven String Quartet number 74. I didn’t even know it existed! So I’m going through that at the moment.

And how is it?

Oh like everything Beethoven does. Awesome. Have you heard his piano pieces? Not concertos; piano, sonatas. Halfway through the first movement he invents early twentieth-century honky-tonk piano. ‘Da-da-da-da-da-da-da, bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp.’ He plays with it for a couple of minutes and says ‘yeah that was fun’ and goes back to something else.

I love Beethoven. I love the Ninth Symphony, probably because of A Clockwork Orange…

Oh yeah! So it took you to the dark side!

It did! [Laughs] but whenever I listen to classical music I can never remember the name, you know, “Symphony Number Two Four Six Opus Three Four Nine” or whatever…

Oh you just play them over and over again. I’ve played one piece by Daniel Hope 2000 times.

 You’ve listened to it 2000 times?

Well, I don’t know if I’ve listened to it. I use it as my writing music. I just start it going, and after a little while it takes me off to a hallucinatory place and I can start writing. It’s difficult sometimes because there’s so many other jobs you’ve got to do, and writing is so selfish.

Why?

Because you’re not doing anything for anybody else. It’s just you being entirely selfish; not doing the housework, not cleaning the garden, not doing the cooking, doing nothing except shoving words together.

But your books—you’ve written 34— surely the product is valuable to people?

Oh yeah, but the process is selfish because you run away from your family and friends.

What it’s like being a family man?

It’s enriching. Without a family I’d have lots more time and money and nothing to do with it.

[Laughs] well you won Australian Father of the Year in 2003.

Yeah.

Did you deserve it?

Probably not in truth. I think there’d be better fathers than me who have spent more time with their kids and have nurtured them through the hard times. I spend too much time doing other stuff… But when I’m there, I’m there. I’d like to have more time for everything. I’d like to be immortal, but with a healthy 18 to 25-year-old body. I don’t want to be dead and vegetabled, or alive and vegetabled. I want to be alive and vigorous. It’s frustrating that you’ve only got a certain number of years. Genetics will make us virtually immortal, but I think that I’m just a little bit too late to benefit.

I’ll probably be in the last generation to die, and you’ll be probably in the first generation to live forever.

Really? It’s going to change that quickly?

Well, think about going to the moon. In 1903, on the 17th of December, we had the first controlled artificial flight by the Wright Brothers. Within the human lifetime we’re walking on the moon. So a baby could have been born when we first had controlled flight and been alive when we walked on the moon.

And you think it can be the same when it comes to lifespan?

Genetics is a lot more complicated. But we will be able to start increasing the lifespan. Each of the 400 or so different cell types in your body undergo a process called apoptosis, a Greek word literally meaning “the autumn leaves falling off trees when they’re dead,” which means programmed cell death. When you reach about 25, your body stops making collagen and elastin and you begin to lose the plumpness on your skin and get wrinkles on your face. It’s only because your skin cells have been programmed that way—until you can turn them on again. We don’t know how, but we will learn. The genetic revolution was slowed down for about eight years by President Bush. It turns out that the only speech that he ever wrote by himself was about how God didn’t like stem-cell technology.

He spent so much time concentrating on that speech that he refused to take briefings about the possible lead-up to 9/11.

That makes me really upset… Not a productive emotion!

No! You’re sounding like Spock now!

Yeah [laughs] but when I hear things like that, and climate change, I get really despairing…

It is a bit depressing. But we’ll come through. The human race will come through. But the trouble is it’s going to be expensive. It’s as though we have a big property and there’s been a fire burning since 1988. What we’ve done about it, is nothing. Bits and pieces, but everything that the scientists say, the press denies. For some reason, we are cutting ourselves off from future greater profits. We keep on doing business as usual—pumping oil and digging coal out of the ground, digging coal out of the ground—where we could make better profits if we moved into a new field of renewable energy. The price is that we’ve lost half the world’s coal cover in the last 11 years.

Why do you think people are so reluctant?

You’ve got a machine that makes money. Why muck around with it? Chevron makes more money than Australia does, and they’ve got these wonderful advertisements in the paper saying, ‘We care about climate change, please buy more oil.’

Are you optimistic?

I’m optimistic in the sense that we’ll get through it. But I’m sad that there’ll have to be so many unnecessary deaths and people being displaced. For certain, Pacific Ocean countries will vanish. Half of Bangladesh is less than five metres above sea level and we’re looking at a one-metre ocean level rise this century if you do not include the feedback loops. If you include the feedback loops you can be looking at five to seven metres. Last time the carbon dioxide levels were this high; the oceans were about 15 to 20 metres higher. That’s what we are condemned to. Fifteen metres, unless firstly, we go renewable, and secondly, start sucking the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere—which we can do, which is expensive and which we wouldn’t have had to do if we’d just gone for renewables in the first place! For fuck’s sake.

There will be humans and there will be poetry and income tax and weapons of mass destruction, but it’ll be messy, it will have been messier than it needed to have been.

Simply because big businesses that deal in getting wealth by burning different forms of carbon are muddying how bad the situation it is. The Australian says, ‘We run as many articles in favour of climate change as we do against it.’ Really? How many articles do they run in favour of the fact that the sky is an alabaster dome covered in blue carpet? There is no other argument. They’re running a mistruth. Which is unfortunate, for us and our children and our grandchildren.

We’re on the pathway to becoming a space-going race. We’re discovering all this amazing new data; that 20-something per cent of the universe is dark matter; 70-something per cent is dark energy. We’ve got no idea what they are now. In a century’s time, they’ll be tools and toys for our children. But we will be held back from using that knowledge just surviving the onslaught caused by climate change. I just remember the baby who died of whooping cough, all because of A Current Affair. 

Did you have the view to playing this role in society?

I had no idea I’d play any major role. I thought I’d be just a little cipher.

I’d love to talk more about your childhood.

My first memory is growing up in a refugee camp on the border of New South Wales and Victoria, in a place called Bonegilla just outside of Albury. It was very cold. The hut where the three of us lived was small, about the size of a tradie van. We got one egg a week, which my parents always gave to me. It could be a false memory—memory’s awfully easy to falsify. But that’s what I remember.

You said earlier that to some extent our memories make up who we are. How has that memory made up who you are?

Appreciation of my parents. Even though they had difficulty expressing emotions, they would do stuff for their kids that would leave them at a disadvantage, as all parents do.

Your parents had also just come from a place where they didn’t have much at all.

They came from Sweden. My father was in Sachsenhausen. I was going through his documentation and found a postcard that he’d sent from the concentration camp with a stamp with Adolf Hitler’s face on it. I couldn’t read it. It was in Polish, but I think it was to his sister.

But you used to speak Polish?

I used to speak Polish and Swedish and Danish, but once, we were picking up some shoes from the cobbler in Wollongong, talking in our various languages, and then one of my classmates at the primary school got pushed forward by his parents who were going, “Show these wogs what-for.” He said, “Start speaking English you bloody wog.” A six-year-old kid saying that to my parents and I. At that moment I stopped speaking all the languages and tried to speak English in an effort to be liked by my fellow classmates, which of course made no difference at all. They were going to dislike me anyway. It wasn’t their fault.

You’ve got to be taught how to hate.

We moved from the refugee camp at Bonegilla to Sydney for a little while, where a doctor took us under his wing and lent us some money to start off down at Wollongong. There are good people everywhere. The majority of people are not bad, they’re just misinformed.

My father told me this story about how in Wollongong he’d risen from being a billy boy (the guy who makes the tea while everybody’s out digging ditches) to a labourer to a foreman, and then to working in the main office in what nowadays they call human resources: hiring and firing. He could speak 12 languages, so he was very useful.One day in came one of his ex-guards from Sachsenhausen, a nasty piece of work. The guards themselves had been brutalised as well. If you end up fighting a war, you become like the enemy, and lose your higher moral imperative. My father recognised the guy, but didn’t let on. He went through the whole thing and at the end he said, “Yeah, you’ve got a job, you can start on Monday.” Then he said, “I recognise you from Sachsenhausen. You were one of my guards.” The guy just went white and sat back down in his chair. He thought this was the end of his days; he was going to get busted and turned into the cops and sent to a war crimes tribunal. He said, “Well what are you going to do?” My father said, “Nothing. I’m not going to tell anybody. It’s just our secret.” He said, “Why?” And my father said, “I’m not doing it for you. I’m doing it for your children.” So the cycle of hate would stop.

They were forced into that brutality. I mean look at the various countries after World War Two who started off having the higher moral ground, and became just as bad as their enemies.

 That’s incredible.

I read an article a couple of months back about a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay who was picked up when the Americans were smarting from 9/11 and offering $10,000 to anybody to turn somebody in. ‘I’ll turn Daniel in because I need $10,000 to buy a Ducati motorbike,’ you know. So this guy’s in Guantanamo Bay and the evidence against him was gained by waterboarding. Now the court case is going on and the penalty is death. But the guy and his lawyer are not allowed to know what the evidence is because it’s classified, and the evidence is what the guy said while being tortured, but he’s forgotten because he was being tortured.

That’s crazy. You were only told very late in life that your mother was Jewish, and therefore you were Jewish. What was it like learning that?

Made no difference. It’s like being told I was actually a Klingon. I picked up a bit of the history, a bit of knowledge, but it didn’t change what I did on a day-to-day basis. I’ve never experienced my Jewishness. I don’t even know what it is.

Are you curious at all about it?

Yeah. But I’m more curious about dark matter and dark energy, and reading that big pile of science magazines. We know that the moon is in an elliptical orbit and sometimes it’s close to the earth, and sometimes it’s far away. I just read in an astronomy magazine that normally it has one point of closest approach in each calendar year. This coming year, 2014, it’s got two. One on the first of January, one on the 10th of August. They correspond to a new moon and a full moon. So we’re going to have motherfucker tides. I’m hanging out for it!

That’s cool!

Right! For me that’s far more interesting than anything I could learn about my Jewishness. Is that a bad thing to say? Have I hurt your feelings?

Nope. Why would you think you have?

People would think that I’d probably want to take it up and explore it. But if I spend time exploring that then I won’t be able to spend time finding out about the king tides, and dark matter, and dark energy, and viruses!

I’m reading a book now called The Ocean of Life. It’s astonishing. We know about some of the life forms in the ocean, we’re just beginning to learn about the viruses, but we know very little about what viruses do in the ocean. They must do something though because if we got all the viruses and joined them together in a very long skinny string— because they’re very small—that string would reach not to the moon, not to the sun, not to the nearest star, not to the nearest galaxy, but a hundred times further. Two hundred million light years.

Wow.

Jesus! What the hell are those buggers doing? I have to find out about that. So that comes very high on my priority list, of what I want to find out about—bearing in mind I won’t live forever. Unlike you.

Unlike me! [Laughs] are you jealous?

Yes, yes, I am jealous. But I’m jealous of anybody who’s got a private jet. I’d love to have a private jet.

You could go anywhere.

Yeah. Anywhere, anytime. It’s so much money, but with regard to the footprint, you don’t have to run them on carbon, you can run them on hydrogen.

So, how do you work out your priorities?

So many things are the priority, too many things. Which is good. Imagine being in a situation where there was nothing that you had any curiosity about. There are people like that. I discovered this during my very first professional job. There are people who live each day and year as though it’s brand new, and there are some people who just live the same year over and over again. They got to 50 and they’ve just lived all the years since they were 20 the same, 30 times over. They have no curiosity about anything.

When did this curiosity begin?

Probably when I got a book of astronomy when I was seven years old. It was so big. I’ve spent two and a quarter years driving through the Australian Outback, I’ve been through 15 of the 17 deserts. On our longest trip we started off at Alice Springs, went west for 1000 kilometres, stopped, turned right, then on for 1000 kilometres. In that entire 2000 kilometres we came across only one party of travellers who just zipped in and zipped past. We didn’t see anybody else for a whole month. We saw no signs of human habitation, no dwellings, no buildings. I could spend a whole life exploring Australia and I wouldn’t explore it, and then a dozen lifetimes exploring the world. And then there’s a solar system. It turns out that each star, on average, has one point six planets. There’s 400 thousand million stars in our galaxy, and there’s 400 thousand million galaxies.

How do you learn?

By asking, by reading, and mainly, by admitting that I don’t know. When I listen to people I listen carefully. If they say something I don’t know, I ask. So sometimes the conversation stutters along, because I want to understand everything they say.

Yeah, you’re very good at saying “I don’t know,” I’ve noticed. But there’s an enormous expectation for you to know.

It’s my job.

I can’t know everything. Nobody can know everything.

But at least I can be some sort of conduit and say, “Okay, so what we need is an etymologist.” And blow me down, an etymologist rings up the radio with the answer.

Right. It’s about bringing people to knowledge.

Yeah. And getting people who have that knowledge spreading it to other people.

So, how do you remember?

I’ve got a very bad memory but luckily I rely on a trick of the human brain, which is it can remember stories. So if I give you a thousand words in alphabetical order, you probably won’t be able to remember them. But if I tell you a story about the warrior woman and Tarzan and they go off in the jungle and then her girlfriend comes along and they all have a three-way sex scene in mud—you’ll probably remember that story.

Absolutely!

So that’s why I write stories in books. I realised early on that if you read something and don’t do anything with it, it just floats around in your brain and gets all fuzzy, but if you force yourself to turn it into a story you then put it in context, you then realise where errors might have crept in. So firstly, you have a higher rate of accuracy. And then secondly, having turned it into a story, it’s easy to remember. But definitely, stuff gets pushed out of my brain by new stuff coming in. I have my laptop with me on the radio with my files of all my stories.

The other day, somebody was asking about eggs. In my twentieth book I had written about how eggs developed in the oviduct and how it has five sections, all I had to do was just go back to that. Reading it on a screen, it was as though I’d never seen it before in my life. It was all factual stuff, which is what this guy wanted. But I tend to forget that stuff because I can always look it up again. The only advantage of me being able to read it is I’ve got somebody else’s words and brought them into what I think is an easier to understand form.

Right. And your stories inspire a lot of people to make different choices about their life.

Which I don’t understand.

You don’t understand. Why?

No! If you could help me… When I go to the supermarket people come up and say, ‘Thanks to you I’ve now decided to be a car mechanic’ or ‘finish off my nursing degree’ or ‘become a hippie’ or ‘start my PhD.’ I have no idea why answering a question about different paths of a chicken’s oviduct inspires people to do that! Except maybe getting them to think they can use their brains in different ways to change their lives.

Isn’t it part of why you do radio and write books— to inspire curiosity and a sense of wonder?

Mmm… not necessarily. I write because it’s in me and it’s got to come out. But how does it work in to somebody saying, ‘I will go and finish my nursing degree now that I’ve heard an explanation about eggs hardening in an oviduct?’

[Laughs] well…

You can see my problem with the link, can’t you? Is it that people are using their minds more?

Yeah, I think it’s because you are, in some way, a symbol of exploration and thinking and following your passion for learning and knowledge…

Not to Andrew Bolt I’m not. He’s attacked me several times.

Has he? I don’t like him very much.

Hang on, hang on, you should help bring him to enlightenment.

I’d love to. But I think I’ll probably go for the lower hanging fruit [laughs].

[Laughs] oh, no. It’d be interesting. I’m sure there’s some goodness in there somewhere. I don’t know where it is but we’ll find it one day.

So you live your life with passion and purpose?

Oh shit yeah. Wouldn’t miss out on it for anything.

Life is for living. There’s not a wasted minute— unless you count watching bad television with the family every now and then.

What’s your daily routine?

It varies. I like to try and pump iron at least once a day. A small breakfast, dinner with the family at night. Part of my routine is loading dishwashers. I can’t trust them to do it. I think it’s a game that they play, deliberately load the dishwasher in an inefficient fashion. Write stories, read. I try to spend as little time as possible doing administrative stuff, filing, the receipts, and as much time reading as possible.

I like your rubix cube belt. But there are two central blues.

Oh he’s good! You’re the first one apart from me who picked it immediately. I’ve got to bring everyone else slowly to the enlightenment. “How many sides does a cube have? How many colours are there?” That’s right, you can’t have two central colours the same. Well spotted.

Thank you.

You are truly an enlightened grasshopper!

[Laughs] I’d love to be the grasshopper. I’d love to spend the whole hour talking to you about all my scientific curiosities, but I also really want to know more about you. You spend so much time talking about everything else.

Well, I’m not that interesting. I think the world is more interesting. I mean, the fact that we’re going to have two major tides this year… man I’m going to be down there on the beach, I’m just going to watch the little fuckers. It would have been better if it’d been the eighth of the eighth and the first of the first, but not quite.

Yeah. I like that type of symmetry too.

I got married on the 21st of June. Every year, that’s the longest day in the Northern Hemisphere. So we went up to Norway and got married inside the Arctic circle, on the longest day of the year. In the same way that the sun doesn’t set, the love doesn’t set on our marriage. At midnight, we were having champagne, and the sun was up [laughs] it’s bizarre! My little daughter, who was about seven or eight at the time, couldn’t believe it. “Daddy, you’re not making sense. How can the sun be up at midnight? It doesn’t make sense! You’re crazy!”

That sounds like an incredibly romantic gesture. Are you romantic?

Shit yeah. For our seventh wedding anniversary I bought my wife a set of silken rubber gloves for the stove. In return, she just kept on using the tea towel, burning it more often, just to show what she thought of my crappy gloves! Luckily I’ve got my family to whip me into shape and stop me going to the dark side.

What’s the dark side?

Well if you look in the newspapers there’ll be people embezzling large sums of money from the public purse. It didn’t start off that way. They just did one little thing that was a little bit wrong, and then they did another one. It’s like salami. You cut off little tiny slices all the time, and each little slice isn’t much by itself, but at the end you’ve lost a whole salami.

I think that’s how people lose their morality, just one little tiny step at a time.

And you’ve had those experiences?

Everybody’s done something… When I was a kid I stole Tinka Tonka toys from a department store, which was a terrible thing and I had to give them back. The thing is that if you don’t get caught, if you don’t stop yourself, you can then end up going—a little tiny slice at a time—into a situation where America’s now prosecuting a guy, and the evidence against him is what he said under torture and he’s not allowed to know what he said.

Who inspires you?

Intellectually people like Richard Feynman and Issac Newton—what a genius he was.

Julius Sumner Miller?

He was very deep. And musicians. People who were both great and humble. I’m not humble. I’d like to be more humble!

Do you like Stephen Fry?

Oh he’s very clever. He covers such a wide range. I only see him every now and then, but every time I’ve seen him, he’s doing something remarkable with the human brain, a bit of knowledge, a walking encyclopedia, and the entertaining as well. He has a nice degree of humility about him as well. Which could be faked, but I’m very happy with it.

How do you think you get there?

Don’t know. There’s no handbook.

I’m fairly shallow actually. The only time I ever seem deep is when I’ve read some words of other people and plagiarised them.

What are some words that you’ve “plagiarised” that resonate with you?

Well, eat food, mostly plants, not too much. I got that from Michael Pollan’s book In Defence of Food. That’s incredibly deep.

In fact, I actually made up something deep the other day myself in response to the Federal Government’s move on education. I might have stolen it accidentally. But the phrase, which I claim ownership of is, “Education is an investment in the future, not a short-term cost.” I mean, it’s fucking obvious. But the successive governments in Australia haven’t treated education as an investment in the future. It’s more expensive to keep somebody in jail on a yearly basis for 15 years than it is to put them up in a hotel and give them a university education. It’s about $70,000 a year. If we educate the people, we’ve got a chance of keeping them out of jail.

I think education is the most important thing to be putting our funds towards as a society. And I think the thing that education does to people is incredible. It brings them closer to themselves and closer to other people.

And it gives them the potential to break out of where they are. You might have somebody who’s in a family where the single parent grew up in dire poverty, and then had them, and then they grew up in dire poverty, and yet education gives them a chance to have a better life. We’re just not giving out the education to where it should be going.

Besides the funding element, do you think that the way that we teach in schools and universities is as good as it could be?

No. I learned this saying in Texas: “If you give a cat $100, it’s not a lion. It’s still a cat.” So if you just go to a random teacher and increase their pay, they’re not a better teacher.

What do you think makes a really great teacher?

What drives Dumbo Feather? Passion…

…and purpose.

I like that. I think I’ll steal that accidentally!

Oh, it’s all yours!

Passion and purpose. Because if you have passion, you’re just spinning your wheels. You’ve got to have a purpose so you can know the direction in which to drive that passion. Some of my daughter’s teachers have actually said to her, “Don’t ask questions.” That’s the exact opposite of what a teacher should be doing.

Do you get a lot of joy out of education?

I love it. I was coming through Melbourne Airport two weeks ago and this 12-year-old girl started chasing me and dragged me back to her parents to be photographed. She’d read one of my previous books, Brain Food, which was not really a commercial success. In fact, it was a failure. It lost money. But I loved writing it because it was about food and our gut and the recent discovery that 90 per cent of the cells in your body don’t have your DNA. They’re bacteria that have invaded you. For me this was just astonishing. This girl made me happy because even though that book—which I love to pieces— was a financial failure, she loved it. She said it just changed her attitude to biology. She wants to go into some sort of life science.

And how does that feel?

Oh, it’s terrific! I feel wonderful! To get random praise all the time from strangers—that’s what I like about going on a book tour. People come up, they tell you how wonderful you are, and they give you a small amount of money, and then they go away to be replaced by another person.

Do you need that praise?

Possibly I’m shallow enough to need that praise. You are probably mature enough that when you were in kindergarten and the teacher said, ‘Daniel, you’ve done a really good job of colouring in that star within the lines, good job Daniel,’ that was probably all the praise you needed for your whole life…

No, I need that praise too. I need to be told all the time. I liked it when they said I coloured in well. I want people to keep telling me.

Yeah, well I get it all the time. And I’m very lucky that I get it. But then I worry that makes me even more shallow than I am. I should be more mature.

Are you philosophical?

Yeah, I do get philosophical. Unfortunately the big one for me is tied to human suffering, which then ties into climate change. In The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker, he says—and he could be wrong—that this is the most peaceful time in history ever. That we are killing and murdering and doing bad things to our fellow humans on a lesser scale than we ever have. We’re being nicer. That fills me with great happiness. But when times are bad, when war comes, when people are displaced, the worse sides of their nature come out. I think this is going to come with regard to global warming. The effects it’s going to have with refugees.

I feel so sad about how we’re treating these poor old refugees trying to come out of various war-torn countries to Australia, and risking everything to go on a boat. The only reason they can’t fly to Australia is that they don’t have a passport. If they had a passport, all they’d have to do would be to buy a return business class ticket to Australia (this is what they’re paying anyway). Buy themselves fancy clothes, and then just swagger their way through customs, go into Australia and just vanish somewhere.

One last question. If you called up Dr Lark on the radio…

Lark?

L-R-A-K. “Karl” backwards.

Oh right.

He’s the only radio scientist that knows more than you. What would you ask him?

Anything about the brain. The brain is so complicated. Why do some people get allergies and some people not? Why am I terrified of spiders but you’re not? At no stage in my childhood did my parents say, ‘Look out for the spiders, they’ll kill you.’ Instead it was, ‘Don’t stick metal in that power point, be careful when you’re crossing the road.’ I’m not scared of power points, I’m not scared of crossing the road, but I am scared of spiders. And we still don’t know why the moon is bigger on the horizon. Why?

Daniel Teitelbaum

Daniel is the head of content at The School of Life Australia, a cultural and educational institution dedicated to developing emotional intelligence. If Daniel had to be stuck on a desert island with a philosopher, he would choose Plato—a cave may come in handy.

Photography by Toby Burrows

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