Juggling Careers

Econometrician Lewbel says the art of jesters isn't just for kids and clowns anymore

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Like most of his colleagues, Prof. Arthur Lewbel (Economics) is adept at juggling teaching and research, but add up to eight balls - not to mention the odd duckpin, Indian club or flaming torch - and he stands alone on the BC faculty.

Lewbel, one of the nation's most respected econometricians, is, in his spare time, a devoted student of the theory and practice of juggling.

He writes a regular column called "The Academic Juggler" for Jugglers World magazine, has directed and judged national juggling competitions, and has written on the science of juggling for Scientific American .

Lewbel says his aim is to demonstrate that the ancient art of jesters isn't just for clowns.

"People think 'juggler' equals 'clown' equals 'goofy,'" he said. "I'd like to show that juggling can be serious, can be difficult, and can be very beautiful."

Lewbel has juggled balls, rings, machetes, torches, even bowling balls. At his peak about five years ago, he was practicing an hour a day, and won a gold medal in the three-person club-passing event at an international competition in Montreal.

A torn rotator cuff - an injury common to baseball pitchers - has limited Lewbel's juggling the past six months. But during a recent interview, he juggled five balls with apparent ease.

Prof. Arthur Lewbel (Economics)-"People think 'juggler' equals 'clown' equals 'goofy.' I'd like to show that juggling can be serious, can be difficult, and can be very beautiful." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
"The appeal of juggling? It certainly is great in terms of concentration," he said, as a cascade of hackey sack-like juggling balls flew in airborne loops before his eyes.

"You can't be thinking of much else. In five minutes of juggling, you've made more catches than are made in an entire baseball game. When doing it at a difficult level, juggling requires a total focusing of the mind. Time slows down. If you're doing five balls, 10 seconds feels like forever."

Lewbel was an aspiring magician when he happened on juggling about 25 years ago as a New York City high-schooler. He put down the magic wand, stuck with juggling and even worked briefly as a street performer.

Later on, as an academic, he began to study the science and mechanics of juggling, collecting information on the mathematics and range of body motion involved in the activity, as well as on the value of juggling as an exercise in skill-teaching.

"Anyone can learn to juggle three balls," he said. "Most people, if they're concentrating, can learn to do it in half an hour. The secret is practice."

Lewbel, who arrived at Boston College in the fall from Brandeis University, is a noted scholar of econometrics, a branch of statistics that uses mathematics in the study of economic data. He serves on the editorial boards of several of the leading journals in the field, and repeatedly has been invited to nominate candidates for the Nobel Prize in economics.

Does he see any connection between his work on complex economic equations and his juggling?

"Nah," said Lewbel. "A lot of jugglers are 'computer' types, which probably is an indication that computer people like to do off-beat stuff. Juggling is a non-conformist thing to take up."

Lewbel said he is interested in offering a seminar on juggling that examines the pastime's mathematical patterns and physical constraints - "why four balls are so much more difficult to juggle than three," he said, "and why five are so much more difficult than four."

In the process, he said, he hopes to impart the noble heritage of the juggler's art.

"Native Americans used it in sacred rituals," Lewbel said. "In some cultures, juggling has been used as a demonstration of prowess. In Norse mythology, there was a god who juggled swords to show his dexterity.

"It isn't just something done at kids' parties," he said. "Juggling is not just for clowns anymore."

Return to March 18 menu

Return to Chronicle home page