Dr. Michael Naylor calmly sits at his desk waiting for his photo shoot and says, “Well I have these.” He pulls out a little sack of juggling beanies and the story of a man who claims a lot what of he does is just play, begins..
A father of three, an associate professor at Western Washington University in the Department of Mathematics, a juggler who explores the connection to mathematics, and a man excited about all that life has to offer are only a few things that can begin to describe Dr. Michael Naylor.
“I have loved math my entire life,” said Naylor “but I didn’t realize the things that I was doing were mathematical until I got to graduate school. I’ve always loved inventing games, designing robots, writing music, programming, wiring things, and hooking up things to my car that I later realized were mathematical.”
“No matter how many times I’ve taught something. I’m always learning something new,” said Naylor.
Naylor began his collegiate career at Michigan State University where he received his Bachelor of Science in Mathematics. This is also where he learned how to juggle and decided that he wanted to be a professional juggler.
After he received his degree, he supported himself for a year as a street juggler by teaching juggling workshops, performing juggling shows, and anything else in relation to juggling.
In 1993, he was accepted to the Master of Fun Arts program at Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Clown College.
“It was in operation for 30 years and it was the most selective college in the world,” said Naylor. “They would have over 2,000 applicants a year and would only accept 30. So I felt very lucky to be able to go there and work with some of the top talents in the circus business. We had classes in clowning, juggling, acrobatics, mime, improv, makeup, history and media, and just about anything that you could think of that was related to clowning and showmanship. We went to class for about 12 to 14 hours a day six days a week.”
After completing the program, Naylor spent a year as a clown in the Royal Hanneford Circus. The Royal Hanneford Circus is the second largest touring circus in the U.S.
Then he decided that he wanted to be a math teacher. He attended Florida State University to get a Masters degree in mathematics education and a teaching certification. Once he completed that, he taught high school for a year
Naylor says that it was too late. He had already fallen in love with graduate school and realized he wanted to stay in college forever. So he began pursuing a Ph.D at Florida State University before he made the move out to Washington.
While he was in graduate school, Naylor also participated in the circus at Florida State University for two years. He performed juggling, slack wire, and double trapeze. He says he was pretty buff back then from performing all the activities.
During his final year at Florida State, he wrote a paper on the mathematics of juggling that was published in a journal for recreation mathematics. The paper was well received by Naylor’s peers, and gave him the chance to travel as far away as South Africa to give lectures on the mathematics of juggling.
“I’ve given talks on the math of juggling for kindergarten classes, college level classes and audiences and everything in between,” said Naylor. “The mathematics of juggling can be very simple such as patterns, rhythms, and shapes if you’re talking with kindergartens and then it can go from there to a very complicated encoding system of quantum physics and objects traveling backwards and forward in time. It’s pretty sweet.”
Naylor also made Ascii art back in his graduate school days, but has moved on to other interests like writing, illustrating and self-publishing a children’s book called Maggie and the Abacaba genies. The book stars his nine-year-old daughter Maggie, who finds a genie lamp that has Abacabadabacaba written on it. As Maggie meets more and more genies, the name continues to double in length based on a mathematical principle of the binary number system. The final genie has a name that is 67 million letters long.
Naylor jokes, asking if he should say the name, but that if he does it would take 47 days nonstop. He doesn’t say the name and continues to explain the Abacaba principle.
“I get a lot of ideas from a lot of different places and they almost always come from play,” says Naylor. “Playing around with ideas and seeing what kinds of interesting things can happen.”
Part of his exploration of Abacaba patterns has included assigning musical notes to each individual letter. The music can be downloaded from his Abacaba website which is http://www.ac.wwu.edu/~mnaylor/abacaba/music.html.
“I feel very lucky to have stumbled into mathematics because there’s so many things I like to do and mathematics is found in almost anything and then you can play, write about it, make some music or use it to inspire some sort of creative idea,” said Naylor.
Naylor also pens a monthly column for Teaching K-8 Magazine in which he provides easy-to-use activities for teachers to use based around one theme that is suitable for kids in kindergarten up through eighth grade. He has contributed 55 columns in the last six years.
Years ago, Naylor wrote a paper about the patterns in seed spirals. He explains that he always searched for a good explanation of why the Fibonacci numbers and the golden ratio come up a lot.
To answer the question, he began playing and experimenting with questions of why that would be and made a discovery about why plants would prefer the golden ratio. He says that it gives the best distribution possible for the seeds. The paper has been referenced in various journals like this month’s Mathematical Intelligence for its ease in explaining why the process works, and Naylor has been praised for filling a gap in mathematical literature.
Naylor says he always has about 12 projects going on at once. Recently, he has taken up interest in welding and making mathematical sculptures. He has two websites in the works (one animates flying into a mathematical structure), as well as math puzzle books for Puzzlewise that has already had 20,000 produced and distributed. At some point this quarter, he’ll have another Wizards of Mathematics show similar to the one he put on in December. He is currently working on another art book featuring mathematical art. He also has plans to write children’s books starring his other two kids.
“Ideas will come to me at any point in the day,” says Naylor. “I’m not used up yet. The way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas. 90 percent of the ideas are terrible, but that means that 1 in 10 are ideas I can do something with.”