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It's Flying in the Face of the Laws of Physics

Comic Juggler Tosses Out Lessons, Jokes and Stuff

September 19, 1996|CORINNE FLOCKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gyroscopic stability! Constantness of gravity! Look for them now, in your grocer's produce aisle!

You laugh? Good. Rhys Thomas likes it that way.

Thomas is a comic juggler from Oregon who tosses, spins and otherwise manipulates objects ranging from fruits and vegetables to roofing hatchets while helping family audiences appreciate the laws of physics--and giving them a good laugh.

You can catch him in his one-man show, "Up for Grabs!," at Costa Mesa's Launch Pad science center this weekend. Or maybe you'll bump into him at your local Home Depot.

"I'm a constant juggler," Thomas said by phone from Spokane, Wash., where he was performing. "I juggle in my shows, I juggle at home. But I also like to spin funnels and juggle knives in hardware stores. . . . And I love supermarket produce departments because there's all those nice round, colorful things to play with. I've heard that something like 23% of all produce workers juggle. . . . How could they not?"

If Thomas' 45-minute show lives up to his promises, there'll soon be a lot more apples and oranges flying around town. And youngsters' awareness of physics principles will be rising right along with them.

"Most kids who come to my shows have never considered things like centripetal force or center of mass," said Thomas, who tours fairs, conventions and science centers nationwide and is developing a new circus-arts show for theaters. "But after they've seen how I manipulate these laws in the circus arts, they walk away with a concrete understanding."

But, as Thomas quickly points out, he's a juggler, not a scientist.

Viewers, he says, are "more likely to want to learn to juggle than to take up calculus. The goal is to provide an entertaining 45 minutes and show how the basic concepts of physics make the circus arts possible. As a result, kids may pick up some of these principles and tuck them away in the back of their heads to draw on when they need them."

Instead of delivering a dry lecture about gravity, Thomas juggles up to seven objects in a dizzying variety of patterns. He said the trick illustrates how gravity pulls at a constant rate, so that objects thrown high take longer to fall than objects thrown low.

"If I want to juggle slower with more time between throws, I have to throw the balls higher," explained Thomas, who gave up a career as a junior high English teacher to pursue his passion for juggling. "Most people don't even think about [constantness of gravity], but to a juggler, this is a wonderful thing."

A lesson in gyroscopic stability, which allows a fast-spinning object to remain balanced on a point where a slow-spinning or static object would fall off, becomes much more memorable when taught through the circus arts, Thomas said.

At the Launch Pad, he plans to demonstrate this by balancing spinning bowls on sticks laid on a fully set table. (For added flourish, he finishes it off by yanking the tablecloth off without disturbing the settings).

Thomas said he has enjoyed bringing his audience-participation lessons to everyone from conventioneers to schoolkids. In 1992, he faced what may have been his most daunting student ever. With TV cameras rolling, he demonstrated gyroscopic stability in a performance of "Live From AT&T Bell Labs." His pupil: Arno Penzias, winner of a 1978 Nobel Prize in physics.

"Worldwide live broadcast, 5 million viewers and I'm teaching the guy who discovered [cosmic microwave] background radiation to spin a ball on his finger. No pressure!" Thomas recalled with a laugh. "But even he said he hadn't thought of the physics in circus arts.

"Guess that proves anybody can learn something from this."

* What: "Up for Grabs," featuring juggler Rhys Thomas.

* When: 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

* Where: Launch Pad Science Center, Crystal Court mall, 3333 Bear St., Costa Mesa.

* Whereabouts: From the San Diego (405) Freeway, exit at Bristol Street and drive north. Turn left on Sunflower Avenue, then left on Bear Street. The mall is on the right; the Launch Pad is on the third floor.

* Wherewithal: $5.75; includes Launch Pad admission.

* Where to call: (714) 546-2061.

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