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Science and circus

Eleanor Dunn chats with Dea Birkett about Circus 250 – a science communication project that is flipping geoscience on its head

Words by Dr Dea Birkett
5 September 2023
Eleanor Dunn

(Image by Peter H from Pixabay)

What is the most effective method for science communication? This is a question that many universities, institutes, and museums grapple with daily. Explaining concepts such as seismic wave propagation, geochemical speciation, and the formation of a syncline is difficult when confronted with a group of blank-faced children.

Enter Dr Dea Birkett, a woman whose idea of science communication stretches far beyond demonstrations in schools and National Geographic documentaries. In 2018, Dea began the perfect collaboration: science and circus. Named Circus 250 because it was launched exactly 250 years after the first modern circus was founded by Philip and Patty Astley in central London in 1768, the project, which is Dea’s brainchild, runs in the UK and Ireland and now has a team of 17 people.

“When the circus was first invented it reached new audiences and was also very radical and different from anything that had come before.”

Dea explains that their slogan, Circus with a purpose, was conceived because, “circus is not only a wonderful spectacle but says something important or shares something important – both to us as a company, our performers, and to our audiences.”

Circus goes beyond high-flying trapeze acts and juggling fire; “circus is anything that involves moving your body so we’re not relying on words to interpret and convey a message, and it usually involves risk – a controlled risk that is a healthy part of circus. Circus provides a positive challenge, a challenge to yourself rather than a competitive one, and it expresses complicated ideas in simple, often spectacular demonstrations.”

A lasting impact

Circus 250 has several acts on its roster, including ‘Strong Women Science’ – a double-act starring Aoife Raleigh and Maria Corcoran who demonstrate some difficult-to-understand concepts such as gravity in displays of unicycling and juggling. For Earth science, a workshop entitled ‘Nature’s Secret Circus’ is led by environmentalist, Eoin Halpin.

“We work with young people in rural communities to create circus responses to the landscape around us, so they learn about the landscape with a geologist and then learn with the circus tutors to reinterpret the landscape through movement, for example balancing on top of each other’s bodies. It’s not like writing an essay or painting a picture. If you learn what that mountain means and how it works in your own body, it’s there with you forever – you respond to it. We’ve made moves called erosion – we look at where erosion is happening on the cliffs nearby and then work with a circus tutor to do circus tumbles that mimic erosion.”

Rural communities

Circus 250 is based on the serene Achill Island on the west coast of Ireland, with its blanket bogs and peatlands. The island’s geological history stretches over six hundred million years with basement rocks formed during the Precambrian and today’s mountain peaks shaped by the last glaciation of Ireland around 20,000 years ago.

Slievemore Mountain and Doogort Beach on Achill Island, Co. Mayo (Credit: MickReynolds, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I ask why Circus 250 is based in such a rural community – Achill Island has a population of 2,569 – and Dea gives two reasons:

“Firstly, there is very little opportunity for any kind of live performance and no science engagement on Achill Island, so rural communities are particularly deprived of cultural and live science experiences. Every survey will tell you there is no point in going to Dublin where people are spoilt for choice. The second reason is that much of our work is inspired by the landscape around us such as plastic pollution, which is a real issue in rural communities.”

For example, to highlight and counter the issue of plastic pollution, Juanita the Cleaner, a climate-saving circus clown, performs a hysterical 40-minute interactive show on the topic.

But Circus 250 is not restricted to Achill Island. Several of the acts tour, doing shows across Ireland and the UK, and will soon be making appearances at the Belfast Maritime Festival, in London theatres, and at rural locations across Ireland.


During our conversation, several parallels are drawn between circus and science, “they both rely on the power of failure. We learn what doesn’t work and that’s the way to find out what does work – you have to keep going over it again and again. The other big parallel is teamwork, every scientific venture involves teamwork, and the circus is the same.”

Like any scientific research, funding is a big issue. “Circus 250 falls between art and science –they are art shows that are science-informed. The art people say, ‘well you’re not art’ and the science people say, ‘well you’re not science’, we have to navigate a careful line. We believe that STEAM, Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths – not STEM – is the future.”

On offering advice to children eager to get into circus Dea says, “there are lots of circus schools throughout the UK and Ireland with things like juggling classes. There are also a lot of YouTube videos on how to juggle and hula hoop. Children can also go to see shows and join workshops when happening close by…which I hope they will.”

Finally, I ask what are some long-term goals for Circus 250? “We’ve just bought an aerial rig so for the first time we’ll be able to do aerial performances such as hoops and trapeze. We’re taking science up into the air and we’re very excited about that.” Dea won’t tell me what these new science demonstrations are – they are in very early stages of development so it would be bad luck to share them. I’ll just have to wait to find out. For now, it seems that the future of science communication through circus is in safe hands.


Dr Dea Birkett, Director of Circus 250 and broadcaster, writer and journalist based in County Mayo, Ireland, and London, UK; www.circus250.com

Interview by Eleanor Dunn, a Doctoral Researcher in volcanology, seismology and digital geoscience at the Dublin Institute for Advances Studies, Dublin, Ireland.


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