Accessibility links

Scientist Circus Performers Make Physics Fun

  • Shelley Schlender

By day, Joe Ramas is an aerospace engineer.

"I do mostly magnetic design and integration of test characterization of satellites."

At night, though, he’s a strong man at the circus gym.

"I hold people on top of me, either in a handstand, or sometimes they stand on my shoulders," Ramas said. "Sometimes there are multiple people standing on me."

When several people are standing on him, Ramas feels his knowledge of physics helps him balance.

Acrobat and physicist, Ian Caldwell, said that’s just one example of how science adds wonder to circus acts.

"Circus is gorgeous, circus is beautiful, in its own right," Caldwell said. "But then to look at it through the eyes of a scientist, it adds more depth."

Right after he graduated from high school, Caldwell traveled the world as a circus juggler and acrobat. Over time, though, he found that wasn’t enough for him.

"I missed all the mental activity," he said. "Mental gymnastics, if you will."

He returned to Boulder, where studying physics provided those mental gymnastics, and practicing acrobatics at the local gym kept him in shape. He joined a community of circus fans who spent their days in scientific pursuits, and performed circus acts for local community groups.

Cassie Drew, a reading teacher and circus acrobat, gave the group a special purpose when she suggested they put on a show to raise money for her school. Caldwell suggested that ‘science’ could be the theme.

"I love the circus arts," Caldwell said. "I love education, I love science, and I’m like 'Yeah, I’m in. Of course. 100 percent.'"

They named their project, the Visindi Circus. “Visindi” is the Icelandic word for “science.” They believed its exotic sound hints at the magic of both science, and the circus.

Ramas, the aerospace engineer and strong man, designed an act that demonstrates the concept of angular momentum. In other words, why it’s hard to balance on a bicycle that’s standing still, while it’s easy to ride a moving one.

For the Visindi Circus, Ramas uses just a bicycle wheel.

"We spin it very quickly, and we hang it on a big metal circle ring called a lyra, which is a circus apparatus," Ramas said. "And the way in which it hangs is pretty magical. Because it doesn’t swing or move the way that anyone would expect."

The performers also developed acts that showed the power of a puff of air by shooting smoke rings out of a garbage can and how you can swing a bucket of water over your head, without spilling a drop, because of centrifugal force.

At Visindi Circus day for Drew’s school, the curtains on the auditorium stage swept open and out danced clowns, and acrobats in colorful costumes. They juggled. They pranced on circus stilts.

The sparkling, spinning bicycle wheel made the kids gasp. And, when the acrobats explained how gravity helps them stand on the strong man’s shoulders or do backflips, some children leaned way forward in their chairs, as if to remind themselves of gravity’s mysterious pull.

Afterwards, many of the children vowed to join a circus someday. Others had a different dream.

"I am a scientist. I know about gravitational forces, and gases and liquids," said third grader Caleb, who enjoyed watching a circus that celebrates science. "It’s adding fun to science."

Members of the Visindi Circus are creating lesson plans so that other schools can do as they’ve done, blending circus and science into a joyful, and educational, mix.