Karl, I’ve been a massive fan of yours for a long time (I’m not worthy, but thank you). So excuse me if I fan-girl out a little bit here. I guess I always just knew you as “the guy who knew everything.”
I don’t know everything. I know what I do know, and I know what I don’t know.
I have the benefit of 28 years of free education, including 15 years of university education, so I’d like to thank the taxpayer for that right now! I didn’t pay anything for my education and I love paying taxes for things that I don’t benefit from, if my money goes to a primary school in Western Australia I’m really happy. So I’ve had the benefit of a really good education plus, I’ve got a sense of curiosity and I read my way through $10,000 worth of scientific literature every year. I’m basically on a futile attempt to know everything in the universe that’s interesting. And I know it’s futile, but it’s like life; it doesn’t matter where you end up, cause you end up dead anyway, it’s the ride! I’m trying to have a really good ride.
Before we met, I made a call out for people to ask questions and I chose this one – “What do you think it is, about the way you encode information, that allows you to remember things so much more effectively than most people?
Oh that’s easy, it’s about the story!
Consider a photograph. One way you can look at a photograph, is by saying – ok, there’s three million pixels in the photograph in different shades of colour and brightness. They can vary anywhere in the rainbow from red to blue. You can go along and encode each bit of information in a photo as an individual pixel OR you can do the gestalt thing, by using the massive processing power of your brain.
You see, our brain came to be very large via evolution and it was a really tricky path, but one of the things our brain can do is look at a photo and immediately say “that’s my mum!” – You don’t have to go through and process those three million pixels. So I do the same thing with stories.
Instead of storing things as individual bits of information, I store it as a block. But firstly, I have to keep on generating those stories, so I’m reading, as I mentioned, $10,000 worth of scientific information every year and then I’m writing stories as well! Now it’s not just as simple as saying “Oh look, it says here on the side feed of my facebook that mobile phones cause cancer, so it must be true!” On each story, like a musician with a song, I’ll spend anywhere from 3 to 50 hours reading, the last big one that just about killed me was Bitcoin and before that was gravitational waves, which took me a really long time.
So I do all the reading, not research, it’s scientists who do the bloody research, we do the reading! And then you’ve got to turn that reading into a story, that’s part of the 50 hour process. As you are going through a piece of information, you might say to yourself “that doesn’t really make sense.” Like for example, you know how people think that mobile phones cause brain cancer? Now let me ask you this, when you are using your mobile phone, what do you hold it with?
And is there any hand cancer?! Is there an outbreak of hand cancer in society??! NO!
So as you are going through, you need to think about it and if you come across something that doesn’t quite add up, do more reading, that helps you get the story right. Then ideally you would run it passed someone who is an expert in the field if you have access to one and then you have to refresh it.
I’ve got a terrible short-term memory, if you give me a list of five things to get at the shop or four different coffee orders. Forget it!
Do you think that’s because your long-term memory is so good?
No! I’ve got a bad long-term memory as well! But I’ve worked out a trick!
So, there are people in the world who have a memory of everything they’ve ever done, we’ve found about fifty of them. So you can ask them what happened on January 1978 and they’ll tell you everything that happened on that day in detail. Their memory is about the same as yours and mine for about a month, whereas ours will disappear after that month and theirs doesn’t. So what we have to do, is keep dragging things out of the memory bank, refreshing them and putting them back in again. To keep the story alive.
Once I’ve got a story, it’s a single block. The brain is really good at recognising faces. And it’s also really good at recognising stories. We need stories as a way of bringing humans together into groups so that we can be an effective fighting force against the world around us. That’s how we have risen to be the top predator on the planet – by working together in groups. See these finger nails? Terrible claws. These teeth? I couldn’t just do a swipe like a bear can, I couldn’t rip out your guts. A dog, with it’s teeth, out can rip your neck out. I couldn’t do that with my teeth. And I can’t run fast. The only thing us humans have going for us, is our brain. It’s our ability to work together in groups. And stories are a part of that.
So, there’s a complicated answer to how I remember things, but basically it’s hard work. I have to work at it.
Phewf! Ok, now let’s get into some fast, fun facts…How many books have you written?
Just finished number 39 and 40!
How many shirts do you have?
There’s a floating population of about 40 in various stages of decay. They start off really fresh. My wife makes them all. They gradually decay. Normally beginning with the collar. Occasionally if the fabric hasn’t faded, my wife will go to the trouble of turning the collar inside out, so i get another generation out of the shirt. Then they get torn up and used as rags.
I read that your family immigrated here?
Yes, my Father, Mother and I came here and we moved into a refugee camp where they were nice to us! Which is good, rather than throwing rocks at us and sending us off to Manus island.
I think that’s quite a different experience to what refugees are facing today?
Oh, it’s awful, the poor fuckers. The thing is, it’s costing us millions to keep them in concentration camp type conditions. It would be cheaper if we put them up in the Hyatt in town and then sent them to University, it would be cheaper! And we also get more benefit as a society. We could send them to Tafe and they could get a really good education and because their migrants, they’ll work really hard, they assimilate and their kids will be the new bunch of kids that do really really well in in school and the exams and the HSC… and then become the leaders and the eye surgeons of our future.
Where did your family come from?
Basically Poland. My Father came from one bit of it, which is now called Ukraine or Lviv, and my Mother came from another part which is Gdansk (danzig). And then they went various ways. My Father went through Russian concentration camps and then broke out, and then German concentration camp and Mother went through German concentration camp as well and they met in Sweden and had me. Then got freaked out by Russia making growling noises in the early days of the Cold War and they didn’t want to go back into concentration camps again, so they fled, they wanted to go to America, but couldn’t so they ended up coming to Australia.
And you grew up in Wollongong?
Yeah, I love Wollongong!
My Mum grew up in Wollongong, Warrawong, Mt Keira and Unanderra
Ah really?! I helped put in a fair few of the sewer pipes around Dapto and Unanderra. We held the record actually for a while, for putting in the most pipes in one day! We were a Christmas gang, I was working there casually after high school and before university and my Father had gotten me the job as he worked at the waterboard. So there I was working as a labourer and the gang sort of shrank and there were just a few of us left and a bunch of the older guys who’d been there for a while said “Oh you guys are just a bunch of bludgers!” to which we replied “Bullshit! We can work hard!” …We were really lucky that there was some really amenable soil in Dapto, and I think in one day, we dug up, laid and covered over 50 or 70 metres of sewer pipe… with shovels! We were really pushing it, just to show that we could do it. The boss said that was the most he’d ever seen laid down in one day.
How did your love of science first start?
Well, it was not so much the love of science, but just a sense of curiosity. There are people who want to understand what’s going on and people who don’t particularly want to. I just really want to understand. I remember when I was sixteen, trying fruitlessly to read Plato’s republic, which turns out to be a nice allegory about deceit and politics. I couldn’t finish it because it was too heavy for me, but there was one phrase that really stuck in my mind which is “the unexplored life, is not worth living.” When I was working at the steel works down in Wollongong, I very quickly realised that there were some people that had been there 20 years and were having a ball and learning new stuff all the time, and then other people who had been there just 1 year and had lived a million lives and repeated the same thing over and over and were just waiting to die! And the people who were really enjoying themselves and having a good ride, were the ones who had a sense of curiosity.
What revives and refreshes your creative spirit?
Oh the new stuff coming through all the time!
Earlier this year, it was announced that we humans had directly detected Gravitational Waves and I read my first story on this back in 1992, so this is 20 years later! This is a story that’s been a century coming. Einstein first predicted that there might be waves a century ago, he then had internal doubts…for about a quarter of a century!
A Gravitational Wave is where the fabric of space-time itself is distorted and to make it happen, you’ve gotta have something really big. So think about the sun. Our sun is a mighty beast and in its whole life, it will burn up about 1,000th of its mass over a period of ten thousand years. Well imagine you burn up not 1,000th of a mass of the sun, but 3 or 6 times the mass of the sun itself and you do it not over 10 billion years, but a 1,000th of a second. Well that event happened when two black holes ran into each other and there was so much power released that for that brief instant, they generated 50 times more power than all the stars and galaxies put together! That distorted the fabric of space-time and when that finally rippled through to us 1.4 billion light years away, it made our planet change about 1,000th of a diametre of a hydrogen atom and we could build machines that could pick that up! Einstein kept saying “well maybe they do exist, maybe they don’t” and he kept on doing experiments in his head, so it took a quarter century of doubt on his part and then about 30 years of thinking about it, as to whether we could actually detect them and then another 30 – 40 years of actually building the technology to do so. And then we’re hearing rumours building up, because this is BIG, this is really really big, it’s going to change our society in so many different ways. And when it came through, I just felt ripples running up and down my spine and my legs for about a minute. When I sat down, they just kept on running up and down my torso, these tingles that we had discovered this! This is going to change our life. For example in 1972, John O’Sullivan started looking for black holes and you know what they gave us? WIFI! Einstein looked for relativity which gave us GPS and this is going to give us anti-gravity…
OK! So this brings me to this question, which is mine. What’s your favourite current theory on what Dark Matter is?
WOAH! Well … phewf…. Hmmmm…. Sigh.. ummm. Gosh!!!
Well, I don’t have a theory. It’s either WIMPS or MACHOS. WIMPS – weakly interacting massive particles or MACHOS – massive astrophysical compact halo object. And it could be anything else. We have no idea what they are. Today we know, that if you use every sort of different telescope that we’ve got – optical, or infrared or ultraviolet or gamma ray or xray or radio wave or microwave, if you use every single sort of telescope we’ve got, all you can see is 4% of the universe, another 20% is Dark Matter and another 70% is Dark Energy.
What’s the difference between Dark Matter and Dark Energy?
Dark Matter is some sort of matter that has gravitational power and effects, like regular matter has, but we can’t detect it, at least we cannot detect it with our current technology, but we know that it’s there by its gravitational effect. Dark Energy, is forcing the universe to expand faster and that’s 70% of the mass of the universe and we don’t know what that is either… and this is just going to change life so much!
Just imagine the difference between when you were a kid and making a phone call. How did you make a phone call? With the rotary dial… Well now days, the kids think that if a phone doesn’t swipe it’s broken. We had an old bare-bones phone and the nephews came around and they’re yelling “it’s broken, it’s broken!” They were pressing on the screen and asking what the buttons were for.
It’s crazy how quickly things are changing, I feel like we are speeding up in terms of technology!
We are and it’s going to go faster!
Our family were the first household to have internet in our suburb. And you think… what would we do without the internet now?
That’s right. It’s part of us. And you and I are in the last generation to have known privacy. Since 2007, every single phone call you have made and every single interaction with the internet has been recorded.
Does that frighten you?
I certainly don’t like it. But if I was frightened by it, I’m damn well be frightened in the morning, at midday and in the afternoon. So I just live with it and get on with life and know when not to say things on the phone or internet. I’ve moved a lot to not putting things in writing or saying things on electronic media.
What is the reason you continue with your practice?
Curiosity. Life is a ride.
What is the last dream you remember?
Oh… it was a terrible dream. It was about being left out and persecuted type of dream…. I know, they’re so sad. I generally forget most of it when I wake up. The degree to which you remember a dream is related to how soon you woke up after having it.
Do you think that dreams are related to something that’s going on in your ‘real’ life?
We don’t know. There are good articles about it in the Scientific American Mind though. And I met a sleep scientist once, I said “Can I ask you a question?” She replied begrudgingly, “I know what it’s going to be…” And I said, “Well can I still ask it?” and she said “yes ok….” And I said “do you know yet why we sleep?” and she said “No!! Are you happy?!” And we also don’t know why we dream. You can make up any theory you like about dreams and we don’t have enough data yet. Scientific American Mind is a good way of keeping up to date. Maybe in 15 – 20 years time we’ll know more. They might be related to processing stuff during the day, the thing about dreams is you often have a lot of boring things happening out of context. So you have an everyday sitution like you go into a shop, which happens and you go into the change room, which happens, and as you step into the door of the change room you’re on a beach, which happens, but not one after the other… they’re out of context.
So how do you make sense of your own dreams?
I don’t! Why bother! I mean forget about it man! Anything to do with the brain is too hard, I’ll stick to the easy stuff like Dark Matter and Dark Energy! That’s much easier.
Do you have any rituals?
I like to do some exercise. I like to have fun with the family and meet and have a hug. I do like eating… “mostly plants, not too much” that’s my mantra. And if I go onstage and somebody says “Good Luck”. I’ll yell at them until they say “Break a Leg.”
Do you know where that term comes from, break a leg??
Yes… hold the microphone I’ll show you… So you do a show for the audience… blablablabla… and then they clap and then you bend forward like this to bow and say thank you. Then you go off stage and you are so good, that they call you back for an encore, then to show respect for the audience, you curtsy to the audience – you ‘break…the…leg” and so “break a leg” is showing that you did such a good job that they call you back for an encore. There’s a couple of other origins as well related to the actual physical stage and curtain itself.
What outlets for your creativity do you have?
I do radio shows in Cairns, Townsville, Brisbane, Goldcoast, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth. As well as Triple J all over Australia. Plus the BBC in London. Plus TV every Sunday morning on the ABC. Plus the books that I write. The podcasts. Plus the twitter feed. Plus live shows with the corporate world and general public. The thing about the corporate world is, yes I get paid for it which is great, but also I get to influence the way they think. David Suzuki gave me some good advice, he said “Any chance you get to talk to the corporate world, take it” and he quoted the words of Lyndon B. Johnson, “You’re better off on the inside of the tent pissing out, than on the outside of the tent pissing in.” You can change things more from the outside than the inside. But you do need both.
If money were no object, what would you do?
Pretty well what I am doing. One thing that I learnt as a medical doctor fairly early on, is that most people don’t realise when they’ve got enough. I’ve got enough. I’ve paid off my own house. We bought a new car recently for 2.50 dollars and I’ve got a bicycle. So in terms of possessions, I’ve got enough. And I’ve got a really good lifestyle. So I’m just happy to keep on mucking around with my brain and then I’ll die.
What do you see yourself doing, when you are say… 90?
Same thing. But different. In different ways. Like the internet. So I used to physically go to schools, now I go to schools twice every week, every Wednesday afternoon, all around the world. I do Q&A sessions in schools anywhere in the world for 2 hours every Wednesday afternoon via Skype and the Internet. So things will change. Podcasts didn’t exist and now they do. I’m just trying to show that Science can be a way to liberate you from what treats you badly. Science is a way to not get fooled. Science liberates you from ignorance. Ignorance is what’s holding us back. I’m trying to make people’s lives better with science.
What are you currently working on / what’s coming up for you?
Finishing book number 39 and 40. As well as a story about how the chemicals in nail polish can be really bad and how the people are often very poorly paid. And another story – they’ve just discovered how Octopuses change colour to register with chess boards that their sliding over. They’ve got the equivalent of mini eyes in their skin!
What does “Create or Die” mean to you?
If you do not create yourself anew, you die! Biologically and intellectually! Your cells are always renewing and if they don’t, they die! Except for the brain cells…and some of them do. Life is this constant taking energy from the sun, running it through you, you come to flower, you reach your peak and then you die. And then your energy goes into something else.