From Juggling to Biomechanics
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
For any aspiring juggler, the path to greatness requires mastering the dreaded “five-club backcross.” It’s a move that begins by juggling five clubs in front of your body and transitions to doing the same thing behind your back! Dr. Noah Cowan has nailed it once, and vows to do it again one day.
But this NIH-funded neuroscientist and bioengineer, who directs the Locomotion in Mechanical and Biological Systems (LIMBS) Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering in Baltimore, doesn’t have much time to practice his juggling these days. Instead, he is focusing on ways to use virtual juggling, such as the ball-and-paddle system shown in the video above, to explore the biomechanics of motion. His ultimate goal? To apply what he’s learned to advance the fields of robotics, prosthetics development, and physical therapy.
While growing up in the small city of Delaware, Ohio, Cowan spent three or more hours per day tossing balls, rings, and clubs into the air in a quest to master the fine art of juggling. By his late teens, Cowan was performing his juggling act at birthday parties and corporate shows. He even took part in a national juggling competition.
When he went off to college at Ohio State, Cowan had to decide whether he wanted to expend the time and energy needed to take his juggling act to the next level. Though Cowan loved to dazzle audiences with his skills, he doubted juggling would ever pay the bills.
So, Cowan channeled his childhood obsession with moving objects into studying the biomechanics of motion. After getting his PhD in electrical engineering at Michigan, he did a postdoc in integrative biology at the University of California in Berkeley. And, to his delight, he found that his background in juggling turned out to be a huge plus in his chosen area of research. He says his experience with juggling’s behind-the-back rhythms, half spins, and pirouettes have given him a “sixth sense” about the best ways to design experiments to answer key questions about how the nervous system controls movement.
His scientific achievements have earned him a professorship at Johns Hopkins, as well as a prestigious 2010 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) award “for innovative research in biologically inspired robotic systems with application to disaster recovery and space exploration, and for motivating students to explore careers in science and engineering.”
But once a juggler, always a juggler. Cowan still keeps a set of juggling pins tucked away in his lab. Every now and then, when the mood is right, he’ll pull them out and run through some of his standard moves. And Cowan says he may soon get the urge to polish up his old juggling routine, if nothing more than to show his two young children that their dad still has what it takes to stick a five-club backcross!
Noah Cowan (Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, Baltimore)
2010 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (National Science Foundation, Alexandria, VA)
National Robotics Initiative (Manufacturing.Gov)
Video: Five Club Backcross (Youtube)
NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Can’t avoid asking about the cognitive training for humans — forget robots — that juggling is reputed to provide. As someone entering his seventies, I’m wondering if what I’ve heard is true… that taking up juggling is a way to help keep those neurons crackling.
One way to find out…
I have relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis and since I began hoop dancing 10 years ago (I’m 42 now), my balance has improved and the awareness of my body mechanics has grown. I just picked up juggling balls a few months ago to improve my dexterity and coordination and to strengthen my arms, hands, etc. This is a great article and interview!