Artists have paintbrushes and canvas, carpenters have hammers and wood; for mathematicians, the tools of the trade have long been a blackboard and a slender cylinder of chalk (preferably Hagoromo, the cult-favorite Japanese brand celebrated in the profession for its durability and lack of dust).
“The boards are their homes, their labs, their private thinking spaces,” writes photographer Jessica Wynne in the introduction to Do Not Erase: Mathematicians and Their Chalkboards. The new book features 110 images of chalk-based investigations by mathematicians around the world—several affiliated with UChicago, as shown in these pages—alongside their reflections on blackboards as a medium.
The project was sparked by married UChicago mathematicians Amie Wilkinson and Benson Farb, Wynne’s neighbors each summer on Cape Cod. One afternoon Wynne watched Farb at the dining room table jotting notes on paper (any port in a storm) and puzzling over symbols, drawings and equations whose significance she couldn’t discern. Not understanding the notes made them feel more intriguing—like a glimpse into a secret world.
This memory returned to her as she reviewed a series of photos she’d taken in Jaipur, India, of lessons in Hindi inscribed on chalkboards at a local school. To her eyes the images had the same elegant, impenetrable quality as Farb’s calculations.
Wynne began writing to mathematicians at institutions near her New York City home, seeking permission to photograph their chalkboards. They could share new or completed projects; her only rule was no whiteboards or glass.
The mathematicians’ research itself remained mysterious to Wynne, but she came to see a connection between their work and hers. “They have a heightened aesthetic awareness, distinct styles and ways of using chalk, just like a visual artist,” she writes in Do Not Erase. “Some of the formulas are intensely chaotic, with explosive energy, while others feel neat, quiet, serene and carefully considered.”
For all these individual differences, she was also struck by deep similarities as she took photos in the United States, Europe and South America: math is the same everywhere, a common language pointing toward universal truth.
Do Not Erase attracted more participants than she expected, and Wynne found she rarely had to explain to her subjects why she was interested. “The mathematicians universally got it,” she says. “Their reaction was, basically, ‘Of course math is beautiful.’”