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The Art of Frustration

The MIT Juggling Club is the oldest continuous college juggling club in the country.
August 1, 2005

Claude shannon loved to juggle. The visionary mathematician, whose theories laid the foundation for the modern digital age, wrote a theorem that describes the relative position of juggled balls and the juggler’s hands; he built a juggling robot with an Erector set; and on Sunday afternoons, he juggled with the MIT Juggling Club.

Juggling is usually associated with clowns, not engineers. But walk by Lobby 10 in the Infinite Corridor on any Sunday afternoon and you’ll see a handful of very unclownish people tossing beanbags, rings, or clubs in mesmerizing patterns. The MIT Juggling Club, which is open to people outside the school, attracts juggling hobbyists from all over Boston, and even a few regulars from neighboring states.

Arthur Lewbel ‘78, PhD ‘84, started the club when he came to MIT in 1975. Lewbel had taught himself to juggle as a teenager after reading a book about the art. When he got to MIT, the closest thing to a juggling club he could find was the unicycle club, so he showed up at one of its meetings and started juggling. Lewbel was on the leading edge of a trend: a few years after he graduated, there were more jugglers in the club than unicyclers. The unicycle club eventually disbanded, but the jugglers continued on. The club, which has met religiously every Sunday afternoon for 30 years, is now the oldest college juggling club in the country.

The 1970s and 1980s brought a growing interest in juggling not only among hobbyists but also among academics. Researchers involved in MIT’s Project MAC, the precursor to today’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, for example, were interested in teaching machines how to juggle. “Juggling has long been used as an example of a discrete skill that you can teach somebody,” says Lewbel, who is now a professor of economics at Boston College and remains a copresident of the club, along with James J. Koschella ‘78 and Barry Rosenberg. “You can analyze how it gets taught and how people learn it…so that later you can think about how machines could do it.”

But most of the jugglers who congregate in Lobby 10 aren’t thinking about math–they’re thinking about making the next catch. “Juggling is a hobby for people who like frustration,” says Milan de Vries, a graduate student and current club member. Jugglers are “inefficiency experts,” jokes Koschella. “We’re always looking for the harder way to do things.” Still, juggling is a good metaphor for life at MIT. “Whether you’re trying to answer a question in science or perfect a new trick, you might not get there,” says de Vries, “but along the way you’ll learn a thing or two and have some fun.”

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