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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Art of Mathematics in Chalk | The Sciences - Scientific American

This article was originally published with the title "Chalkboard Art" in Scientific American 324, 5, 66-75 (May 2021)


A photography project reveals the allure of equations in mathematicians’ blackboard work, as Scientific American’s senior editor Clara Moskowitz reports.

ISOPERIMETRY: A conundrum dating back to the ancient Greeks called Dido's problem asks: Among all planar figures having the same perimeter, which one encloses the greatest area? The answer, the Greeks knew, is the circle, and it was finally proved in the 19th century. But a related problem persists in non-Euclidean geometry. Gilles Courtois, director of research at the Institute of Mathematics of Jussieu in France, was studying this question. “We thought that we had found a path toward a solution,” he says. “The scheme was so simple that we were able to write it on the board.” Unfortunately, the idea didn't pan out, and the project “remains a work in progress.”
Photo: Jessica Wynne

Even when it is inscrutable, math is beautiful. Photographer Jessica Wynne set out to capture this appeal when she began photographing mathematicians' chalkboards around the world in 2018. “I've always been interested in entering into worlds outside my realm of knowledge,” Wynne says. Without comprehending what the math on the chalkboards represented, she was able to appreciate it on a purely aesthetic level. “It's a similar feeling as when I'm looking at an abstract painting. But it added more interest that beyond the surface there's great meaning and great depth, and they're trying to reveal universal truth.”

Wynne was first drawn into the world of math when she befriended two mathematicians who vacationed near where she spent summers on Cape Cod. As she learned about their research, she found many parallels between the process of math and the process of art. “I was really surprised to witness how they work and how creative what they do is,” she says.

As Wynne began to travel to different universities to meet more mathematicians, she discovered how diverse their chalkboard styles are...

Many of the photographs will be collected in a book, Do Not Erase: Mathematicians and Their Chalkboards, forthcoming in June from Princeton University Press...

She had planned to visit the mathematics department of the University of Cambridge until she learned that their chalkboards had all been replaced by dry-erase and digital boards. “I'm very attracted to the whole analog nature of working on a chalkboard,” she says. “I noticed a lot of places were getting rid of their blackboards, and I felt an urgency to document this.”

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Additional resources

Do Not Erase:
Mathematicians and Their Chalkboards
Source: Scientific American