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Vol 57 No. 16 : Sept. 1, 2005
Vol 57 No. 16 | Sept. 1, 2005
Murray Juggles Math Equations

Will Murray

Will Murray

Will Murray has been a juggler as long as he has been a mathematician.

That inner balance by the member of CSULB’s Mathematics and Statistics Department since 2001 has taken him around the world and back to campus where he serves as faculty advisor to a student juggling club.

The CSULB connection between juggling and math began in 2003 for the Long Beach resident (he lives close enough to campus to occasionally commute on a unicycle, yes, a unicycle) when he began teaching number theory.

“Number theory is about the properties of whole numbers and how you can add and subtract them and do modular arithmetic. That lends itself very nicely to describing the patterns of juggling,” he said. “I would take a day in class to do a little juggling to show them what it’s all about. Then we’d analyze it using the mathematics, which tied it directly to what we were studying in class.”

For instance, they studied the “mobius mew” function (named for the Greek letter μ) which can predict the number of juggling patterns. “I gave homework problems to list all the juggling patterns of such-and-such a size and students not only did it, they had fun. I even had juggling on exams,” he said.

Eventually, his students wanted more than patterns on paper. They started asking him when he would teach them the real thing and advise a student juggling club.

“When I was a student at UC Berkeley, I ran the juggling club there for years,” he said. “I got tired of asking people to come out and play so I agreed to be the sponsor of a juggling club here only if the students did all the paperwork.” Completely to their credit, they did, with Murray giving special kudos to past club president Randy Moya, a member of CSULB’s class of 2005, and next year’s club president Aidee Castro for their organization of a November 2004 juggling festival at CSULB.

“Contemporary mathematical study of juggling has its roots around 1990,” he explained. “Mathematicians studied the patterns to throwing and catching balls. When the balls land in certain patterns, it becomes a discrete math problem to count the number of different patterns that are possible and legal within juggling rules.”

What had been a geeky, academic thing began to catch on in 2001. Suddenly, jugglers who were not mathematicians discovered patterns all over the world. They embraced them and began using them in performance and competitions.

Murray authored an article in the May 2005 issue of Kaskade, the European juggling journal, titled “Scratch Your Head: Synchronous Popcorns.” “Popcorn” is a passing pattern where two people with individual clubs “pop up” on either side. “Synchronous” is when two hands are used at once.

“I call it scratching the head because throwing with both hands is like scratching your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. You have to throw one club to yourself with one hand while simultaneously passing another club to the other person with the other hand. It’s really rough on the head,” he said.

He attended the International Juggling Festival held in Davenport, Iowa, in July and there was a sizable contingent of Japanese jugglers at the event. Murray, however, was not at a loss for words because he received his Bachelor of Science degree in Japanese from Georgetown University.

“I began my academic career studying Japanese, to the point where I lived in Tokyo where my interest was first kindled in math,” he recalled. “I was asked to prove things and look at new structures and it challenged me to think in different ways.” He wound up earning a doctorate in math from UC Berkeley in 2001.

Murray enjoyed 15 minutes of fame with the Japanese thanks to a juggling video partly shot in the fall of 2004 at CSULB. “Things You Can’t Do II” from Ivan Pecel Productions includes brief moments of Murray juggling near The Walter Pyramid and the Brotman Hall fountain. “Apparently, this has been quite widely circulated in Japan,” he said. “When I showed up at the festival, there were all these Japanese people who said, you’re on that video! That was really cool.”
Murray has a tip for those who think they might like juggling. Start juggling.

“There are lots of stories of people essentially juggling in the closet,” he said. “They don’t realize there are groups of people who get together and have a lot of fun. My advice is not to get hung up on the skill level because juggling is not about that. People may think they need to juggle at a certain level to join a club. That is absolutely not true.”
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