Friday afternoon, students from RPI listened to a talk by Brian Miser of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Baily Circus, better known as the “Human Fuse.” Miser is famous for shooting himself out of cannons that he designs himself. His latest “cannon” is in fact a crossbow, which is different because he is exposed outside the device, instead of being shot from within. He also sets himself on fire.
“I’m not an engineer; I’m more of a fabricator,” said Miser. He designs, builds, and configures his cannons himself. The inner workings are a trade secret—he hasn’t applied for a patent to keep the mechanisms out of the public eye. There are only 10 or 11 human cannons in the country, and of those, Miser built five.
The new act involves Miser flying over 100 feet through the air while on fire, launched from a gigantic crossbow. A video of his performance (as seen on the Late Show with David Letterman earlier this week) is on YouTube at http://youtu.be/tITzmyj3oZs/.
His design strategies are decidedly unscientific. “I don’t like electronics; I can barely turn a computer on,” he said. He calibrates the cannons by feel, rather than a formula. (Still, he found the angle that yields the longest distance is 42 degrees—a rather universal answer.)
Miser grew up in Peru, Ind., the “circus capital of the world.” He wanted to be in the circus since he was little. “I knew that’s all I wanted to do,” he said.
Since starting his career, he’s broken 14 bones from circus incidents alone. “I’m not very smart; I keep coming back to it,” he joked. “I’ve been doing it for 31 years professionally.”
The act is undeniably cool. Watching a person (on fire) shoot himself out of a huge crossbow and fly through the air is awesome. Still, as exciting as this is, it’s pretty much just a stunt. As everyone’s favorite toy cowboy would say, it’s “falling with style.”
When a juggler throws six clubs in the air or an aerialist spins on fabric suspended from the top of the tent, it’s an artistic demonstration of skill. There’s no secret inner machinery when three acrobats balance on each other’s outstretched limbs.
Now, I grew up on circus. I juggle and ride the unicycle. Maybe I’m a circus hipster. I like to watch clowning and aerials. A flaming-human crossbow is cool for about two minutes; I can watch an acrobatics or juggling act for ten times that long, or more if it’s a good one.
The “stunt” class of circus acts is just inherently shallow. You can’t really compare different cannon acts because you don’t know what goes on inside the cannon. There’s even more math in juggling—the father of information theory Claude Shannon was an avid juggler and even derived a theorem relating different juggling constants.
Miser is obviously a talented designer and performer; I just prefer other genres of circus. Just because he built the crossbow doesn’t mean RPI engineers can learn much from it; the design’s secret and wasn’t really that scientific in the first place.
Next time, why not find someone to talk about the physics of juggling? That’s an event I’d really want to see.