In a recent presentation, circus performer Julia Ruth played a roll of videos from her performances, which show her spinning on a rope hanging from the ceiling, walking and jumping on stilts and rolling on a Cyr bike.
For the uninitiated, the Cyr wheel (pronounced “sear”) is a large metal ring, often made of aluminum, steel or titanium. A performer stands inside the wheel with legs and arms on the rim, resembling Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The performer rolls and spins on the edge of the wheel, which makes him move gyroscopically. The performer then releases and moves his limbs one or two at a time to manipulate the trajectory of the ring and perform acrobatics inside.
Ruth says the Cyr bike is one of her favorites because it clearly demonstrates so many important physical principles, including center of mass, maintaining momentum, balance, acceleration and lever.
Ruth knows these principles inside and out, partly because of her acrobat training and partly because – although her doctoral studies are currently on hold – she is both a science teacher and a physicist. Ruth presented her work at a unique session of the American Physical Society meeting in April 2022.
Ruth and her family grew up near the University of Maryland, where her father was a professor. A German immigrant to the United States, he returned his family to his homeland on Saturday, where Ruth first became acquainted with physics in the ninth grade of a German-speaking high school. Growing up, she did not speak German with her father at home, so school was her first exposure to the language. But the class still caught her attention.
“Despite the language barrier, I was just so fascinated by it,” says Ruth.
After returning to the United States, Ruth immersed herself in physics. She attended Magnet High School of Science and Technology and spent the last year researching dark matter with a professor at the University of Maryland. The following summer, Ruth worked with another professor at UMD on gravitational wave research.
It wasn’t until he attended UMD as a student that Ruth discovered her passion for performance. It started as a casual interest in the school’s gymnastics and acrobatics group; Ruth had no experience, but she thought it might be fun to try.
She admits that she was “terrible” at first, but says that changed when a coach started explaining things to her from a physics point of view. “Then things started to click and I finally started to get a little better,” she told APS.
At first, Ruth was not interested in acting. “I was just afraid to be in front of people,” she says.
But, she says, one day she was finally sucked into it – and that changed the trajectory of her life. The moment I came down from my first show, I said to myself, “This is amazing. I feel so good right now! ”
Finding her balance
Ruth was working as a researcher at the time. She had an internship at NASA, where she studied the layers of the Antarctic ice sheet.
She then explored the sea ice at the North Pole with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She then met Shined Farrell, her potential research adviser, friend and mentor.
Farrell, an associate professor of geography and atmospheric and ocean sciences at UMD, said she was immediately impressed by Ruth’s autobiography, including the unusual mention of her acrobatics experience. She was even more impressed when she first saw Ruth’s performance. “I still have goosebumps to this day because there is my student and she does acrobatics!” she says. “[The performers were] she jumped through hoops of fire and she hung outside [aerial] silk. I almost died of surprise. “
When Ruth’s student years ended, she was not ready to give up her first love, science. Thus, she began her doctorate in geophysics at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego with a prestigious scholarship to graduate from the National Science Foundation.
In high school, she combines classes, research and learning with training, coaching circus students and performing. Through it all, she gave priority to eight hours of sleep each night, even if it sometimes meant missing homework.
As she continued to feel attracted to the performance, Ruth knew she had to make a decision. After earning her master’s degree, Ruth decided it was now or never: physics classes are a little more forgiving, but the human body can only do acrobatics for so long.
Ruth fled to join the circus.
“To make that leap, to leave school in a doctoral program with a scholarship from the National Science Foundation, was a horrible thing for me,” she told the APS session.
Ruth originally taught science classes in high school to support herself while working as a freelancer as a circus performer. After a few years, she managed to turn the circus performance into her full-time job, with less teaching.
The life of a circus artist is not for everyone, but Ruth says she loves him. In the last two years alone, Ruth has participated in seven states and lived in seven different homes in two states. There is no schedule from 9 to 5 and she often works on weekends and holidays. Even as a full-time performer, Ruth still virtually teaches subjects ranging from English as a second language to exercises and flexibility to astronomy and modern physics.
When not participating or teaching, Ruth trains relentlessly: lifting weights, stretching, practicing her specialties, and doing rehabilitation and “preparation.” (This 29-year-old woman plans to play for the next 10 to 15 years, so maintaining her strength and flexibility is paramount.)
Physics research was much less strenuous, but Ruth found many similarities between the two fields. Both require communication with the public. This is especially true of teaching science, which is the aspect of physics that Ruth says is most passionate. “Preparing to teach a lesson is a lot like preparing for a performance,” she says.
In addition, both circus performance and science involve research and study, both of which are skills taught in higher education. (Stockholm University of the Arts even has a circus department where students can earn a doctorate in circus research.)
As for her own education, Ruth still sincerely intends to complete her doctorate in physics one day. Farrell, who kept in touch with her former student and managed to see Ruth perform again before the pandemic, says she believes she can do it. “Whatever she does, she’s super successful,” she said. “It has to be in the spotlight, that’s for sure.”
Ruth ended her conversation with APS with the advice she says she gives to everyone, whether a circus artist or a scientist: “I really want to encourage you to follow your passions. Every time you do this jump – I encourage you to do it every day, even small jumps – every time you do, you grow as a person. You reach new heights and really challenge yourself to be a stronger human being. ”