The timeless beauty of a mathematician’s chalkboard

Mathematicians continue to calculate, solve, and create on chalkboards, even in the digital age. A photographer captures samples of their work.

Ideas explored on chalkboards—and erased and explored again and again—can lead to breakthroughs across disciplines, particularly in mathematics. At Princeton University, professor Noga Alon uses his board to study how graph theory can be applied to computer science, a relationship that has enabled modern advances in digital technology.

Detractors may deride mathematics as difficult, abstract, rigid, boring. But to admirers, mathematics is fascinating, creative, even an art form—and its canvases are chalkboards covered with scribbles, an odd mix of therapy and ingenuity known as board work.

Photographer Jessica Wynne learned about the beauty of mathematics from her summer neighbors on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Both of them are theoretical mathematicians, and when their friends—also theoretical mathematicians—came over, Wynne noticed that chalkboard ponderings were how they communicated complex ideas and worked out knotty problems. They used chalkboards to collaborate and spar and, most of all, to explore the boundaries of known mathematics. Some described it as meditation.

In a world with plenty of paper, whiteboard, and digital screen space, why chalk? “That’s like asking a painter why they paint with oils,” says Wynne. But there are practical matters too, she says. Dry-erase markers stain clothes and hands. Then there’s how chalk sounds and feels when in use: a soft knock and rhythm, almost like a metronome. One University of Chicago mathematician vowed that if the math department replaced chalkboards with whiteboards, the faculty would revolt.

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