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Once a physicist: Burnaby Q Orbax

Professor Burnaby Q Orbax, aka Jason Thomas, is the ringmaster of a travelling-circus stunt show based in Canada, The Great Orbax.

Burnaby Q Orbax

How did you first become interested in physics?
I got into physics for two reasons: Doctor Who and my personal quest to learn how to throw energy balls. After a few years of my undergraduate degree, I had to resign myself to the fact that a long scarf was about as close as I was going to get to my Gallifrean mentor; and I decided to take up fire-breathing in order to achieve the latter goal.

What is your background in physics?
I studied at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. I completed a Bachelors degree in physics and mathematics in 2000 and a Masters degree in polymer physics in 2002. I then spent two and a half years studying for a PhD before running away to join the circus.

How did you develop your passion for entertainment?
I have always been interested in TV, theatre and film; and I had an obsession with monsters. The world of the freak show became the natural evolution of everything I was good at. I create and build our props (which vary from a giant working mousetrap to robotic pig clowns), paint our banners, build our freak museum (using taxidermy and modern special-effects techniques), write our scripts and design the stunts we perform.

How did your career progress after you graduated?
During my PhD studies I suffered an accident on stage that resulted in third-degree burns to 11% of my body (my head and shoulders). I was in hospital for 10 days, before being home-nursed for two months. It was then that I had to work out whether to pursue the freak show full time or give it up and finish my degree. I chose the former, deciding that 20 years on I would be more upset that I didn't take a chance on a dream. By that time I had already established a small fan base, and using direct marketing to colleges and universities we've created quite a niche for the show.

What is involved in your act?
The show combines elements of vaudeville, slapstick comedy, sideshow stunts and terrible jokes. We have a guy who eats bugs, a woman who walks up a ladder of swords and a guy who sets mousetraps on his face. I personally perform the human blockhead (a stunt involving hammering nails or sticking forks up the nose), walk on broken glass, escape a straitjacket and get cinder blocks broken over me.

How does your physics education help you in your career as an entertainer?
My education has made it possible for me to figure out how to perform the dangerous stunts we do without getting hurt. All of our stunts involve exploiting simple principles of mechanics. It has also helped in the design of my evil weather machine – however that will not be complete until 2008.

This article originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of Physics World

last edited: September 11, 2018

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