Do Not Erase: A Glimpse of Mathematicians' Minds Through Their Blackboards

In a time when blackboards have been replaced with whiteboards or slide show presentations, many mathematicians stick with chalk and boards.

In their love of blackboards and chalk, mathematicians are among the last holdouts. In many fields of science and investigation, blackboards have been replaced with whiteboards or slide show presentations. But chalk is cheaper and biodegradable. It smells better than whiteboard markers and is easier to clean up, mathematicians say. It is also more fun to write with.

Due to her fascination with mathematicians' blackboards, Jessica Wynne, a photographer and professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, has been photographing mathematicians’ blackboards in the past years, "finding art in the swirling gangs of symbols sketched in the heat of imagination, argument and speculation." A collection of these images will be published by the Princeton University Press in the fall of 2020.

The collection is entitled, “Do Not Erase.”

“I am attracted to the timeless beauty and physicality of the mathematicians’ chalkboard, and to their higher aspiration to uncover the truth and solve a problem,” Ms. Wynne said in an email. “Their imagination guides them and they see images first, not words. They see pictures before meaning.”

The title of Ms. Wynne’s book comes from the message often left on blackboards for the cleaners who might come in after hours and wipe away the artifacts of genius: “Do not erase.”
It happens. In a recent article in Nautilus, the writer and M.I.T. physicist Alan Lightman recalled an occasion at Caltech in the early 1970s when Richard Feynman worked out an equation on Lightman’s blackboard that described how black holes could emit heat and radiation, in contravention to everything that physicists then thought.
Dr. Lightman returned the next morning to copy down the equations, but the board had been wiped clean. A year later, Stephen Hawking worked out a similar calculation, which made him famous.

Photo Credits: Jessica Wynne

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