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The Beautiful Blackboards at Quantum Physics Labs
October 28, 2012 9:18 PM   Subscribe

The Beautiful Blackboards at Quantum Physics Labs (from The Atlantic)
posted by moonmilk (36 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
Artist Alejandro Guijarro's site
posted by moonmilk at 9:19 PM on October 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


This brings me back to some of my favourite classes in college.
posted by destrius at 9:46 PM on October 28, 2012


I was kind of hoping the boards would be in situ - I was lucky enough to see the new Perimeter Institute in Ontario recently and was impressed by the number of blackboards (each with it's own light and switch!) available in the hallways. The building in the work of fancy-pants architecture, but they did actually seem to consider the occupants, from well placed plugs in conference rooms to the plentiful chalkboards.
posted by maryr at 10:03 PM on October 28, 2012


Cy Twombly.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:04 PM on October 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Palimpsestuous.
posted by cthuljew at 10:13 PM on October 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sci Twombly!
posted by moonmilk at 10:15 PM on October 28, 2012 [9 favorites]


Science looks hard.
posted by eugenen at 10:26 PM on October 28, 2012


Blackboards are so much better than whiteboards, and the um, palimpsestuous nature is one of those reasons. (fabulous word, cthuljew).

But there's also a delight in writing on a really nice chalkboard. Although I'm fond of my current institution, the one before really had better blackboards. (Neither are represented here, although I keep trying to recognize handwriting in the Berkeley and Stanford ones).

Anyhow, I sort of dig these pictures because that is really what blackboards-in-use look like. So many of the pictures-of-science we get are staged, but these blackboards aren't.

Oh, and in case you want to look at some pictures of boards-in-situ--although the artists here tells us that's not-the-point- I'm guessing the Berkeley ones are at the CTP on campus, if true then this link should be the same boards in context. (Disclaimer: one of those pictures has the back of my head and some of my handwriting in it.) Although then I'm unclear on if these are boards used in lecture courses or by working physicists.
posted by nat at 10:27 PM on October 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


These are gorgeous.

If you love this kind of thing, do check out photographer Arnaud Maggs, he has made a career out of documenting found systems like this. More work here and here.
posted by oulipian at 10:29 PM on October 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


In the holographic universe, chalkboards are an illusion.
posted by Zerowensboring at 10:29 PM on October 28, 2012


I'm a bit rusty, but several of those don't seem to contain many QM equations.....
posted by schmod at 10:46 PM on October 28, 2012


Science looks hard.

But then you can erase it.
posted by stargell at 10:53 PM on October 28, 2012


My husband's quantum physics shared office lost their blackboards/whiteboards during a renovation a while ago. For several months the only writable surface was the refrigerator. You can imagine the results.

Nowadays they have whiteboards again. One is covered in the usual equations and diagrams and the other is full of quotes of stupid things the physicists in the department have said. (And all their computer passwords and log-ons in case anyone needs to access anyone else's stuff. Physicists are a trusting lot.)
posted by lollusc at 11:15 PM on October 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Calling Mr. Overwijk.
posted by rh at 12:36 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


stargell: "Science looks hard.

But then you can erase it
"

With one of these. .
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 3:44 AM on October 29, 2012


My academic library has rolling whiteboards that the students can move around and use with a box of markers they can check out for a couple of hours. I am unreasonably delighted by a) the places the whiteboards end up and b) the evidence of student work left behind. You can see people working out problems in their field, sharpening their skills, and generally learning.

Interestingly, although we occasionally have rashes of uninventive graffiti in the rest rooms, these people leave the whiteboards alone.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:30 AM on October 29, 2012


There's a big whiteboard / chalkboard divide in our science building. We have one classroom with chalkboards, which is in hot demand, whereas all the others have whiteboards.

Now that whiteboard markers no longer outgas mind-altering volatiles, and that I've adopted the practice of carrying my own set of markers on my person at all times, I'm a total whiteboard convert.

Sometimes I get stuck in the chalkboard classroom due to class sizes, other classrooms in demand at the time, etc. I hate having chalkdust on my hands. I have no idea how anybody gets any intellectual work done on a chalkboard. I stand there trying to answer student questions, and all I can think is "chalk on hands chalk on hands chalk on hands chalk on hands OH MY GOD CHALK ON HANDS MUST GET CHALK OFF HANDS"

The desiccating effect in wintertime is also horrific.

(Oldschool types are shaking their heads in disgust at me. That's okay, I'm used to it.)
posted by BrashTech at 5:30 AM on October 29, 2012


I was thinking a lot about Graham's number this weekend. Specifically, how it begins with g1=3^^^^3 - which is already so face-meltingly ultra-colossal that any serious attempt to visualize it would surely result in insanity - only to begin the run-up to g64, each stage of which is an even more unfathomable hyper-blooming of Huge-Huge-Hugeness.

I thought about the fact that there was someone who actually identified this precise number as having a specific mathematical importance. And that there was a whole class of such people who could verify his work and make further use of it.

Such people might as well belong to a different species than I. I could no sooner do what they do than I could breathe through gills.
posted by Egg Shen at 5:52 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's a big whiteboard / chalkboard divide in our science building. We have one classroom with chalkboards, which is in hot demand, whereas all the others have whiteboards.

Our math department is engaged in a running battle with the university to keep the chalkboards. I think there's one room in the building that has a whiteboard. They installed it on the back wall and then reoriented the room to make it face the whiteboard. We had meetings in there a few summers back and turned the chairs round. There's a good unintended consequence of seemingly being one of few holdout departments (I assume physics is holding out too), which is that virtually all math classes get scheduled in the building because the other departments are all actively avoiding the chalkboards. There seem to be a handful of foreign language classes (whose building is across campus, so they lost the room lottery badly) and that's about it.

That said, this question from MathOverflow probably is all you need to know about mathematicians and chalk.
posted by hoyland at 6:17 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dang. I just started a pet project photographing two kinds of black&white boards at my university: the detritus after a lecture, and the more private boards in colleagues offices. Science boards are interesting, but so are the other disciplines. The idea came to me after a philosophy lecture. At the end of the lecture, the board had the word "incoherent" and a sketchy picture of a dog's tail sticking out from behind a wall. Nothing else.

In multi-purpose lecture rooms, you can find gems where one board contains traces of several different subjects: Basic Mandarin characters over Archaeological terminology, for example.
posted by stonepharisee at 7:16 AM on October 29, 2012


I'm a bit rusty, but several of those don't seem to contain many QM equations.....

the only one which doesn't contain formulas from QM (somewhat broadly interpreted ie. QFT) is the second one. But then, in the upper left corner I can see Gev, for gigaelectronvolts, so I assume it's scribbling about some godawful particle physics experiment.

Newer chalkboards in Germany (or at least the institut I was at) were made out of sheets of glass or a hard plastic with a dark green coloring on the back of the glass. They were miles above American greenboards and had all sorts of neat effects from the distance determined by the thickness of the writing surface, the glass, and the opaque background.

whiteboards suck.
posted by ennui.bz at 7:33 AM on October 29, 2012


In the Donald Duck comics I read as a kid, Gyro Gearloose sometimes had math scribbled on a blackboard, and I thought it looked incredibly advanced. Some years later I flipped back through those magazines and it turned out the formulas were basic geometric expressions like "a^2 + b^2 = c^2" or "A = pi r^2". Now I'm a quantum physicist, and after a discussion session I sometimes look back at the board and try to think how it would appear to an outsider. It brings me a bit of pleasure to understand and communicate through those scribblings, which child-me would have found just impossibly complex and impressive.
posted by springload at 8:24 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I liked the last one- the one that's just a field of equation dust, like millions of equations all in superposition. (!)

Backboard Pro-tip/Anecdote:
In school, we girls were told to erase the blackboards by wiping up and down because erasing side to side would make our butts wiggle.
posted by Phyllis Harmonic at 9:13 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


The third one evoked Guernica for me.
posted by glhaynes at 10:33 AM on October 29, 2012


I was expecting more....beauty...frankly i've seen more interesting blackboards in ale houses.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:44 AM on October 29, 2012


Also, I admired the black board writing of two of my university math teachers. One of them would give his lecture and just write write write on the blackboard at the same time, like the two activities were handled by different halves of his brain. In each lecture he would fill nine boards with tiny but well readable math, then erase it all and fill them again after the break.

The other one wrote "x" not as two crossing lines but as two "c":s back to back. It looked beautiful and sophisticated so I tried to replicate it, but for me it just became "c" or something equally displeasing.

I don't think I saw physicists write beautifully like that, which seems to points at a more general difference between the disciplines.
posted by springload at 11:09 AM on October 29, 2012


I can't think of a physicist or a mathematician that doesn't write x in the curly style. It was standard in school for us from about the age of 14 or something in maths lessons.
posted by edd at 12:06 PM on October 29, 2012


The 2nd one has NNLO+NNLL written in the center. This stands for next-to-next leading order + next to next leading log, which is notation for summing additional terms in a series that corrects the simplest - leading order - calculation for the cross section - the rate at which particular events occur at a particle collider. Above and to the right of those words (in blue) appears to be a partial equation related to that, but I can't quite tell.

There's also the recently discovered Higgs mass written down, along with letters NMSSM: Next-to-Minimal Supersymmetric Standard Model, which is, as the name implies, the simplest addition to the smallest possible supersymmetric model (MSSM) that can be realized in our Universe. Below the "NMSSM" you can see "integral d^2 theta mS^2+S H_1 H_2..., which is part of the action for the NMSSM (the "next-to-minimal" part refers to the addition of a single new "singlet" field, called S). There's also a CMSSM written nearby: constrained MSSM, referring to a particular range of parameters for the MSSM that is consistent with experimental data (and some theoretical prejudice). The stuff in yellow to the left of that appears to be solutions for various parameters of the Higgs sector in the NMSSM. If I had to guess, this was probably taken the week after the July 4 announcement.

Don't even begin to ask me what is going on with the 4th blackboard down.
posted by physicsmatt at 12:14 PM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


edd: Really? I don't recall seeing that done by anyone except her, and my classmates and I talked about how neat it was. Two squiggly lines crossed is rather common I think, but that's not the same as the two little jogs.
posted by springload at 1:13 PM on October 29, 2012


I have a fond memory of the chalkboards in the 1970s labs of my father and his colleagues at MIT. They were washed every so often by the custodial staff, so if they wanted to save something they would circle it and write "do not erase" or something like that. My dad's friend Bob Silbey famously had laboriously mapped out the entire world of Adventure (aka Colossal Cave Adventure) on one of his chalkboards and circled it "do not erase."
posted by slkinsey at 1:49 PM on October 29, 2012


(I assume physics is holding out too)

Quite right. I'm the only physics chalk-apostate.

The chalk thread is brilliant.
posted by BrashTech at 3:41 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


A teacher once told me, when asked what good advice she'd received when starting out:

"Erase the board up-and-down rather than side-to-side if you don't want to be shaking your butt at the students."
posted by straight at 4:14 PM on October 29, 2012


I teach a poetry class . . . and the class immediately after mine is a class in quantum mechanics. I have, on more than one occasion, drawn a simultaneously alivedead cat in a box in the corner of the board for the prof. who comes in after me. We have not yet met.
posted by exlotuseater at 10:08 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


exlotuseater, that makes me smile. :)

As an undergrad, however, these boards terrify me, because I've been supposed to understand boards that looked about this confusing before. Thank goodness I'm almost done with my required math courses!
posted by lemoncakeisalie at 1:16 AM on October 30, 2012


This is so beautiful. Ha, as a high school senior with pretensions of majoring in math or physics, these boards terrify me even more. You mean I'm going to be able to understand stuff like that?!

I like how we're enjoying the beauty of 'found' scribblings; to me it conveys a sense of respect of other disciplines and the study of things we personally may not understand. It's so lovely and nice.
posted by undue influence at 2:44 AM on October 30, 2012


> This is so beautiful. Ha, as a high school senior with pretensions of majoring in math or physics, these boards terrify me even more. You mean I'm going to be able to understand stuff like that?!

Yes, and the warmth never leaves you.
posted by de at 8:46 AM on October 31, 2012


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