"This is what thought looks like"
September 24, 2019 2:09 PM   Subscribe

For the last year, photographer and FIT professor Jessica Wynne has been photographing mathematicians' blackboards, finding surprising art (SLNYT) in the dusty symbols of conjecture, argument, and speculation. Her book "Do Not Erase" is due to be published by Princeton University Press in 2020. And straight to my wish list, once I figure out where and how to pre-order.
posted by cross_impact (16 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a lowly applied computer scientist but I still love blackboards so much more than whiteboards. Overall, in my whole life, maybe 15% of the whiteboard markers I've uncapped and tried to use actually work.
posted by scose at 2:16 PM on September 24, 2019 [9 favorites]

My abstract algebra professor always said you weren't a real mathematician till you could draw a perfect curly brace in chalk on the blackboard every time.

My number theory professor, by contrast, would always fail to plan ahead and run out of variables and reuse one and then realize he'd used M to mean two different things. Once at, I think, my own suggestion, he changed the second use of M into little cat faces by using the M as the cat's ears, so we all had cats in our notes that day.

I wish I had photos of both their blackboards now. It'd be really emotional to see their handwriting again. At this point they're both definitely emeritus.
posted by potrzebie at 2:17 PM on September 24, 2019 [15 favorites]

Tadashi Tokieda, a professor at Stanford University, made fun of how mathematicians, restricted to black-and-white imagery on blackboards, always make a white (chalk) dot to represent “black” and an empty circle (which is black) to represent “white.” Mathematicians would get the joke, Ms. Wynne said.

I've occasionally fantasized about running a study about how people draw stick figures. I'm pretty sure that if you asked White people to draw a stick figure of an average person on a blackboard, they would draw a head with a hollow circle, but if you asked them to specifically draw a stick figure of a Black person on a blackboard, they would draw a circle with a filled-in head, thus providing a clear example of how White people think of non-White people as non-generic.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 2:19 PM on September 24, 2019 [9 favorites]

My real analysis professor, who was otherwise kind of a jerk, would captivate me with his ability to sketch intelligible visual representations of truly weird-ass spaces. My topology professor was similarly gifted with his renderings of point-set topologies and held me in fascination. And he was a fair bit nicer. When I saw this article, I knew I must have this book.
posted by cross_impact at 2:22 PM on September 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

cross_impact, you might like this book.
posted by eruonna at 2:43 PM on September 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

thus providing a clear example of how White people think of non-White people as non-generic.

This fits right into markedness theory and how unmarked and marked work to create identities and perceptions of otherness.

This is a great thesis on the subject: Race, Gender and Markedness: Women's Identity Construction at Dartmouth College
posted by nikaspark at 2:51 PM on September 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

My number theory professor, by contrast, would always fail to plan ahead and run out of variables and reuse one and then realize he'd used M to mean two different things.

Oh, this reminds me of one time when I was staying in a hotel room for an anime convention and working on my math homework for a college class, and mentioning how I was having trouble deciding on which Greek letter to use for a variable, when one of my roommates made the brilliant suggestion of using Japanese characters. I really think that katakana would be a practical source of mathematical variables, because each character encodes a vowel and a consonant, so they're inherently two-dimensional.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 2:55 PM on September 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, and again on the subject of depicting dark vs. light colors on a dark-colored medium: I used to have a toaster where the base color was dark grey, and all of the markings for the user interface were drawn in white. Naturally, the knob for light vs. dark toast used pictures of bread to indicate what kind of toast you wanted, so this meant that one side had an icon of a hollow outline of bread, with a white border and a dark grey interior, and the other side had an icon with a filled-in picture of bread, where the whole picture was in white. I was never able to figure out which setting was supposed to indicate dark toast and which side was supposed to indicate light toast.

In fairness, it was a pretty crappy toaster.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 3:45 PM on September 24, 2019 [6 favorites]

If you asked me to draw a white person and a black person on a chalkboard, in front of a classroom, I think I'd jump out of the window. I can't imagine any way that would turn out well.
posted by thelonius at 5:30 PM on September 24, 2019 [7 favorites]

I will attest that the black/white dots thing is a nightmare in talks and people get confused and then try to say "solid" and "empty" and then get that crossed with black/white and it's all a bit absurd. (Coincidentally, they're still called black if it's, say, a blue marker on a whiteboard.)

I have an anecdote relating to things mathematicians leave written on chalkboards: My second year of grad school, I had topology followed by algebraic geometry in the same room. (I might have actually had four classes in a row, but those two were in the same room.) I was once having a wide ranging discussion with the topology professor after class and we had gotten round to the relationship between Kolmogorov and Alexandrov when the algebraic geometry professor walks in and pauses with a weird look on his face. "What, you don't believe they were together?" "No, I do... why do you have 'pimp' written on the board?" (The answer: something about embarrassing situations historical mathematicians had found themselves in due to language mishaps. I no longer remember the details.)
posted by hoyland at 5:51 PM on September 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

I no longer remember the details

No problem. It's still interesting to get a peek into the after-hours math seminars, thanks.
posted by thelonius at 6:03 PM on September 24, 2019

A quick scan of my camera roll has more than 25 pictures of blackboards in it.

The advent of phone cameras has really changed the way I use blackboards. Once upon a time my board would fill up completely because I don’t want to erase anymore. It was some time in 2008 or 2009 when I was trying to share draw up a bunch of Feynman diagrams to try to explain a calculation to my coauthor, and a colleague happened by and said “hey why don’t you just take a photo, you already drew them on the board”.

So yeah, I take photos and erase 90% of my board multiple times a day. (The other ten percent is a list of projects that I’m gonna work on someday, really). Of course I’d have to erase less if I had a bigger blackboard— the photo with the board that wraps around the corners definitely makes me jealous.

(Mr Nat is a whiteboard person; but I’m blackboard till they pry it out of my chalk dusty hands).
posted by nat at 9:17 PM on September 24, 2019 [6 favorites]

Oh, and that’s 25 this calendar year. None of them are artistic photos though, just practical!
posted by nat at 9:17 PM on September 24, 2019

I think I know what myretired mathematician father will be getting for the next gift-giving holiday after this is published.

Loved the photo of the blackboard at IHES. I spent a combined total of almost a year there as a little kid. In the late 70s it was an amazing community of polyglot mathematicians and lots of little kids running feral everywhere.
posted by sciencegeek at 6:46 AM on September 25, 2019

posted by cenoxo at 7:12 AM on September 25, 2019

Einstein's blackboard from May 16, 1931, preserved at Oxford's History of Science Museum.

Richard Feynman at CERN in 1965 (more here).

The Beautiful Blackboards at Quantum Physics Labs, The Atlantic, October 26, 2012 features part of photographer Alejandro Guijarro's Momentum series.

The Power of the Blackboard, Physics World, June 1, 2017:
Blackboard and chalk – like paper and ink – are a combination that modern technologies can’t improve or displace. You still see blackboards (and plenty of whiteboards too, it’s true) in physics research centres across the world. At the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, they’re an essential element of the design, being installed in the lifts and coffee areas of the original building. The Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge, UK, even has blackboards in the toilets; you never know when insight might strike.

This ubiquity can create a sense of community and shared endeavour, as if the creative thoughts of one’s peers seep into the very walls. “The evidence of past conversations can be inspiring”, says Lauren Hayward Sierens, a condensed-matter physicist at the Perimeter Institute. “Often what you’ll see on a given blackboard at the Perimeter is a combination of many different conversations. I can rarely understand these past conversations if I wasn’t a part of them, but it’s inspiring nonetheless to be surrounded by so many ideas.”
There’s also something about a blackboard that seems to fit with the way the mind works: sketching, erasing, supporting a free flow of ideas. “Many physicists like to do a back-of-the-envelope calculation before delving deeper into a computation, and blackboards are a great tool for that”, says Tibra Ali, another theorist at the Perimeter Institute. Indeed, there’s a trophy-like quality to a clever piece of work prominently displayed on a blackboard. Some physicists like transcribing a hard-won solution onto a blackboard to understand the full ramifications – and perhaps just to gloat.
• Although indirectly related to physics, perhaps the most evocative blackboard portrait of all is the post-WWII image “Tereska Draws Her Home” by David Seymour (WP bio). Tereska's identity and life remained a mystery for 70 years.
posted by cenoxo at 10:30 PM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

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