Save the blackboard: an endangered species that is essential to scientific success

The benefits of chalk and blackboard to good scientific research range from size to simple friction

Most whiteboards are too small for the long equations of modern physics, while good blackboards are accommodatingly big. Photograph: Thinkstock

Most whiteboards are too small for the long equations of modern physics, while good blackboards are accommodatingly big. Photograph: Thinkstock

 

Here’s a curious thing. Some of the finest and most esoteric achievements of human culture are made with the simplest of technologies. The arcane physics equations that predicted the Higgs boson and the calculations that underpin the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the biggest and most sophisticated instrument humans have ever built – were all made by people using chalk on a blackboard.

You can play “count the blackboards” tonight if you’re going to the screening, for Science Week, of Particle Fever, the fascinating documentary about what it was like to work with the LHC on the search for the Higgs (watch out for the scene in the table tennis room). Or look at any photograph of a great physicist: there’s usually an equation on a blackboard behind them.

This is not just some cliched shorthand that says “science”. Despite the dust, many scientists really do prefer chalk.

What got me thinking about this was visiting Canada’s Perimeter Institute, a prestigious institute for theoretical physics in Ontario. Walk in the front door and you’ll literally see the writing on the wall. Every available wall space is there to be written on, and there are blackboards everywhere.

Why is this? After talking to scientists across a range of disciplines, I gather that the benefits of chalk and blackboard range from size to simple friction. Most whiteboards are too small for the long equations of modern physics, while good blackboards are accommodatingly big. It’s easier to write scientific and mathematical equations and formulas accurately and legibly with chalk than with a marker.

It may seem simple, but good research institutes know this and put quality blackboards in every possible room, providing essential space for working and thinking. This prompts me to suggest a new scientific league table: rating institutions by the amount of blackboard space they provide per researcher.

Interestingly, this was something that Éamon de Valera realised when he was planning Ireland’s research programme more than 75 years ago. Resources were limited, but Dev, a maths teacher-turned-politician, knew that theoretical physics needed no expensive laboratories, just good people, good blackboards and (although it’s possible Dev didn’t add this last one) good coffee.

He established a School of Theoretical Physics in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, even recruiting Nobel scientist Erwin Schrödinger. (There is more on this fascinating chapter in Irish history in a new book by David Attis, Mathematics and the Making of Modern Ireland.)

 

Save the boards

Today, I am told, the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies continues to provide excellent blackboards. But other college and research administrators seem not to realise the need, and blackboards, especially big ones, are becoming an endangered species. Judging by the ratio of whiteboards to blackboards, most universities now presume that you can present everything with the one medium. Yet that’s like expecting everyone to use Twitter for all their communications. Some messages are simply different and need a different medium.

As someone who trains people in communicating science, I’m keenly aware of it. Many people think that every message can fit into the same, one-size-fits-all medium, usually PowerPoint: if you’re giving a talk, it follows that there must be a slideshow. Yet for many of the sciences, blackboards remain essential.

Writing out an equation or drawing a diagram also allows you to show the process of science. Drawing something means you are presenting the material at a rate that an audience can follow, allowing them to absorb the information, instead of being presented with everything pre-drawn on a finished slide.

But back to the cinema. The new biopic of Alan Turing, The Imitation Game, opens tomorrow. Turing was part-Irish, his mother being one of the Tipperary Stoneys. Turing was related to George Johnstone Stoney, the Offaly physicist who arguably “invented” the electron, and to the great Dublin theoretician, George Francis FitzGerald, whose mother was also a Stoney and who laid the foundations of Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity, among other things. Turing’s parents even got married in Dublin.

I’d love if the new film mentions Turing’s Irish connections. I’ll be watching out – and I will also be counting the blackboards.

 

Mary Mulvihill is a science writer. She tweets about Irish geek heritage at @IngeniousIE

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