In a recent presentation, circus artist Julia Ruth played a reel of clips from her performances, which saw her spinning on a rope hanging from the ceiling, walking and jumping on stilts, and rolling on a Cyr wheel.
For the uninitiated, the Cyr wheel (pronounced as “sear”) is a large metal ring, often made of aluminum, steel or titanium. An artist stands inside the wheel with his feet and hands on the edge, with the appearance of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The performer rolls and spins on the edge of the wheel, causing it to move gyroscopically. The performer then releases and moves the limbs one or two at a time to manipulate the trajectory of the ring and perform stunts inside.
Ruth says the Cyr wheel is a favorite of hers because it clearly demonstrates so many important physical principles, including center of mass, conservation of momentum, balance, acceleration, and leverage.
Ruth knows these principles inside and out, partly due to her acrobatic training and partly because, although her PhD studies are pending for the moment, she is both a science educator and a physicist. Ruth presented her work in a single session of the April 2022 meeting of the American Physical Society.
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 took her family back to her country of birth for a gap year, and it was there that she was first introduced to physics, in her ninth grade at a German-speaking high school. . Growing up, she didn’t speak German with her father at home, so her school was her first experience with her language. But the class still caught her attention.
“Despite the language barrier, I was so fascinated by it,” says Ruth.
Upon returning to the United States, Ruth immersed herself in physics. She attended a high school for science and technology and, in her senior year, she conducted dark matter research with a University of Maryland professor. The following summer, she Ruth worked with another UMD professor on gravitational wave research.
It was only when she attended UMD as a college student that Ruth discovered her passion for performance. She started out as a casual interest in the school’s group of gymnastics and acrobatics students; Ruth had no experience, but she thought it might be fun to try.
She admits she was “horrible” at first, but says it changed when a coach started explaining things to her in terms of physics. “That’s when things started to click and I finally started to improve a bit,” she said in her APS speech.
At first, Ruth had no interest in performing. “I was so terrified of being in front of people,” she says.
But, she says, one day she was finally “sucked in” and that changed the trajectory of her life. “The second I got off the first performance I did, I thought, ‘That’s great. I feel so good right now! ‘”
Finding its balance
At that time, Ruth worked as a researcher. You did an internship at NASA, where you studied the layers of the Antarctic ice sheet.
Subsequently, he did research on North Pole sea ice with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It was then that he met Sinéad Farrell, his prospective research consultant, friend and mentor to him.
Farrell, associate professor of Geographical Sciences and Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at UMD, says she was immediately impressed by Ruth’s CV, including the unusual mention of the aerobatic experience. She was even more impressed when she first saw Ruth perform. “I still have goosebumps to this day because my student is there and she is doing stunts!” she says. “[The performers were] leaping through circles of fire, and she was out of the [aerial] silk. I almost died by surprise. “
When Ruth’s graduation years were over, she wasn’t ready to give up her first love, science. So she began her Ph.D. in geophysics at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego with a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
In graduate school he balanced class, research and study with training, coaching circus students and acting. In all of this, she prioritized sleeping eight hours each night, even if that sometimes meant missing a homework assignment.
As she continued to feel drawn to the performance, Ruth knew she had a decision to make. After earning her master’s degree, she Ruth decided she was now or never: Physics classes are a little more lenient, but the human body can only do stunts for so long.
Ruth ran away to join the circus.
“Taking that leap, leaving graduate school on a doctoral program with a National Science Foundation fellowship was a terrifying thing to do for me,” he said in the APS session.
At first, Ruth taught science in middle school to support herself while working as a circus performer on a freelance basis. After a few years, she was able to make circus performance her full-time job, with a lesser amount of teaching from her.
The circus artist’s life isn’t for everyone, but Ruth says she loves it. In the past two years alone, she has performed in seven states and lived in seven different houses in two countries. She doesn’t have a 9 to 5 schedule and she often works weekends and holidays. Even as a full-time artist, she still virtually teaches subjects ranging from English as a second language to practice and flexibility to astronomy and modern physics.
When not performing or teaching, Ruth trains incessantly: weightlifting, stretching, practicing her specialties, rehabilitation and “prehab”. (This 29-year-old she plans to perform for the next 10-15 years, so maintaining her strength and flexibility is of the utmost importance.)
Research in physics was far less physically demanding, but Ruth found many similarities between her two fields. Both require communication with an audience. This is especially true of science teaching, which is the aspect of physics that she Ruth says she is most passionate about. “Preparing to teach a lesson is very similar to preparing for a performance,” she says.
Furthermore, both circus performance and science involve research and study, and both are skills taught in higher education institutions. (Stockholm University of the Arts also has a Circus Department where students can earn a PhD in circus research.)
As for her education, Ruth still intends wholeheartedly to finish her Ph.D. in physics one day. Farrell, who has stayed in touch with her former student and was able to see Ruth perform again before the pandemic, says she believes she can do it. “Whatever she does, she’s super successful,” she says. “She should be in the spotlight, that’s for sure.”
Ruth closed her APS talk with the advice she says to give to everyone, circus performers or scientists: “I really want to encourage you to follow your passions. Every time you take this leap, I encourage you to do it every day, even small leaps, every time you do, you grow as a person. You reach new boundaries and you really challenge yourself to be a stronger human being. “