Large blackboards and the best chalk “always vital for mathematicians”

For most mathematicians, blackboards are “their homes, their laboratories, their private spaces for reflection”.

This is the point of view offered by Jessica Wynne, professor in the photography department of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, in her new book Do not erase: mathematicians and their blackboards (Princeton University Press). This includes full-page images of over 100 paintings from Brazil and France as well as from across the United States, each accompanied by thoughts from mathematicians. Many offer strong perspectives on why their paintings remain an essential tool for thinking, teaching, collaborating – and even making friends.

Simion Filip, associate professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago, sees the blackboard as “an active space, ready to change and ready to carry any thought … With a brief gesture and a sponge, you can modify thoughts. past, correct errors and express a better understanding of a problem. Although “a blackboard lecture takes place more slowly than a slide lecture,” this means that “the audience can absorb the material more deeply. The course of the lecture is recorded on the surface of the board and the audience thus acquires an extended short-term memory.

Although she admits that she “usually works[s] outside [her] geometric problems in [her] mind or on paper ”, Dusa McDuff, Helen Lyttle Kimmel ’42 professor of mathematics at Barnard College in New York, considers the blackboard to be“ essential for [her] teaching ”, because“ the physical and visual process of writing and drawing diagrams makes reflection more concrete and, hopefully, more accessible ”.

For Ronen Mukamel, mathematician and geneticist doing research at Harvard Medical School, “The table provides an antidote to some of the main pitfalls of modern forms of communication. Communication on the board occurs naturally at the speed of human thought, since the presenter must physically write everything that appears on the board.

For his part, Philippe Michel, holder of the chair of analytical number theory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, exposes the essential tools: a picture so high that “its borders do not interrupt the flow of thought and thought. ‘writing’; some “high quality chalks”, such as “the legendary Japanese chalk Hagamoro Fulltouch”; “A large cloth rag” to clean the board and “a large rubber rag” to dry it again.

It is up to Nicholas Vlamis, assistant professor at Queens College, City University of New York, to explain why the blackboard – “the glue that unites this community and its rituals” – is also at the heart of his social life: “My adults’ closest friendships all started with a mathematical collaboration, standing in front of a blackboard trying to figure out a mathematical puzzle together. This experience, in a way, leads to friendship; it has been one of the great joys of my life.

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