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What Math Can Teach Us About Juggling, and What The Math of Juggling Can Teach Us About Everything Else

Computers represent humanity's greatest achievement along the border of the analytic and the pragmatic. I have always been interested in where mathematics and the 'real world' meet. The question that seems to drive the latest heights of human understanding wherever I turn is - how can we use mathematics to better understand our environment, more efficiently complete tasks or provide more sophisticated and beautiful solutions to problems that are half-understood but widely believed to be resolved? This interest has informed my career, from an amateur interest in cryptography and network security as a youngster, to the study of logic at university, and now to networking and administration (I also think its why I've had more of a capacity for the discrete side of things and have floundered in calculus).

This intersection in computing is widely accepted, but in more common tasks the mathematical approach to problem solving is often discarded for the obscurantism of 'common sense' and 'intuition'. Human beings are incredibly conservative and reactionary when it comes to their approach to valued modes of thinking. The disruption presented by objective analysis that challenges these modes is dangerous and emotional stuff.

It is with all this in mind that I am fascinated by the work of Beek and Lewbel. These gentleman have published a mechanical study of juggling that has been seeing renewed interest and publicity.

The publication develops a notation for juggling based on the rhythm of ball throws and providing for the constant of hand position. This allows for the expression of juggling tricks excluding a diagram, but more importantly, for the a priori discovery of new possibilities of tricks. On the way home from the donut shop this morning, an interview was on the air discussing the study, and how this juggling notation had allowed for insight into tricks that could and should exist based on the availability of ball throws, but simply had not been.

What a great example! In a few moments the application of discrete mathematics revolutionized an activity thousands of years old; providing not just a discovery but all possible discoveries that can be accomplished with two hands.

One wonders: will this approach be greeted warmly or with derision by the professional juggling community, such as it is? Will jugglers complain that this approach devalues the traditional creative approach of practical experimentation, or will jugglers immediately begin practicing this new pantheon of tricks? Will juggling trade organizations attempt to implement protectionist policies to blacklist Bleek and Lewbel or attempt to reinvigorate the interest in the ancient practice of juggling with this latest innovation? What could the reaction of the juggling community teach us about other activities and industries; do circumstances surrounding the embrace of innovation change when the amount of money at stake changes?