Juggling show teaches physics principles

See how one of the best variety arts entertainers on the west coast uses his skills to make science fun to learn …

Professional juggler, entertainer — and science teacher — Rhys Thomas quips, “There’s no job for a multi-tasker quite like mine.”

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Perhaps the funniest physics instructor on the planet, Rhys Thomas, demonstrated the fascinating science behind the ancient art of juggling, during his “Science of Juggling” show at OMSI on the weekend of May 17th.

“It’s part of my ‘Science Circus’ show,” Thomas said, as he set up his props for an afternoon show – er, class.

We asked Thomas – considered by many to be the best variety arts entertainer on the west coast, and a former Smithsonian artist-in-residence – how he came up with the concept of blending entertainment and education.

Thomas jokingly asks for a volunteer with “juggling experience” to help on stage. But Angela Kaurin proves her skill with three-ball juggling!

“When I was first started out as a juggler, back in 1987, I was doing great as a street performer,” Thomas recalled.

“Then winter showed up, and I had to figure out how I can get off the streets and get into a building. I researched the science behind juggling, and created a show that teaches physics, using juggling tricks. I started performing in schools and museums – and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

With a young man standing by to catch flying balls, Thomas demonstrates why rhythm – based on math – makes juggling possible, as he keeps five balls in the air.

The Portland-based entertainer/educator’s show teaches concepts such as gyroscopic stability – using a spinning a ball; and inertia – by pulling the tablecloth out from under the dishes; and, gravity – by juggling all kinds of items.

“By juggling a bowling ball, a juggling ball, and a ping-pong ball, I demonstrate how gravity pulls objects down at the same rate of speed regardless of their mass.”

“But how do you demonstrate centripetal force?” we ask.

“What could be better than with a cowboy’s lariat?” Thomas said as he grabbed a rope and started it spinning.

Thomas demonstrates gravity’s equal pull on objects of differing masses, using three balls: bowling, juggling, and ping-pong.

As the show got underway, none of Thomas’ students had problems paying attention, as he demonstrated scientific principles using flower sticks, balancing tools, spinning ribbons, and hula hoops.

“I hope my performances spark a youngster’s interest in learning more about science,” Thomas said with a sly smile. “Or, juggling!”

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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