Back in black: Why does the newest building on campus have old-school blackboards?

Publication date
Wednesday, 27 Jun 2018

The brand new $45-million cyber security building at ANU is draped in code.

A cryptographic pattern of alternating lines and spaces is featured in the metalwork on the massive interior staircase, and emblazons the windows across all of its five floors, housing staff from the ANU Mathematical Sciences Institute, the ANU Research School of Computer Science, and the Statistical Consulting Unit.

Exterior detail

Here in this building straight out of The Matrix, among the best mathematical minds in the country, is a piece of technology found nowhere else on the ANU campus.

“We have the last blackboards in the University,” Associate Professor Scott Morrison says, proudly. Very proudly.

Associate Professor Morrison and his colleagues from the ANU Mathematical Sciences Institute fought to ensure the new facility would include them.

“Instead of having labs, mathematicians stand at blackboards.

“The main social area in the new building will have a whole wall of them. It will be nice for people to be having tea together and then, when they start a mathematical conversation, they can wander over to the boards.

“So much of our work in mathematics is spent talking to each other. The early parts of all our work is explaining half-baked ideas to each other and the boards facilitate that.”

Go to any great maths institutes around the world, Associate Professor Morrison says, and you’ll also find blackboards.

At the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, every corridor is lined with blackboards. Stories circulate that at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques in France, you can find them in the lifts. And at the Erwin Schrödinger Institute in Vienna, there are [lowers voice] blackboards in the toilets.

The new building

But what exactly do blackboards offer mathematicians that a whiteboard can’t?

Morrison defers to an ANU maths graduate student, self-described blackboard evangelist Ivo Vekemans, to explain.

“Let’s start with the senses,” Ivo says. “A blackboard looks better, it sounds better, it feels better, it smells better and it probably tastes better.”

And of practical importance, he continues, it slows down the speed at which you write.

“The coefficient of friction of whiteboard markers is too low,” he says, leaving no doubt that he’s a maths student.

“When you’re communicating mathematics, it’s not just about doing an info-dump, it’s about the process. If you lecture with a whiteboard marker, you write too quickly. With chalk, you write more slowly and more neatly.”

The contrast of light on dark is also easier to read, he goes on. There’s no reflective glare, and you can quickly erase chalk with your hand, while marker leaves “a gross residue”.

The chalk to be used in the new building is a whole other story. Morrison swoons as he describes it as “thick, smooth and creamy”. To justify the cost of importing this dream chalk from Korea, he says, they conducted tests against cheaper supplies.

“We filled up blackboards using the Korean chalk and cheaper chalk, and discovered that while piece by piece this chalk is more expensive, it’s the same price in terms of the amount of writing you can do with it,” he says.

The good chalk

In response to the rumour that the computer science side of the new ANU building is, by contrast, all whiteboards, Associate Professor Morrison says, “It’s absolutely true”.

“They’re not interested! Part of the reason is I think that historically, people who have looked after big computers are grumpy about chalk because they don’t want dust in the air and in the air conditioning system.

“We’ll see if the computer scientists use the blackboards in the common areas!”

The seminar room offers a compromise, featuring whiteboards as well as rails allowing for six blackboards to be slid in, covering the entire back wall.

This huge surface area is, he says, “all that mathematicians want” in a board.

“What you write on the board during a talk is the trail of breadcrumbs that lets everyone keep up with the maths you’re trying to explain. As much as possible you want to be able to leave it up there.”

Morrison does concede that while blackboards offer a range of practical advantages, there’s an element of romance to these big rectangles.

“A large part of the appeal is the connection with our history. Mathematicians have always been talking with each other at blackboards. And while lots of us now use modern technology to do lots of computing, the blackboard is different. It’s our heritage.”

Professor Michael Barnsley in the old ANU maths building

Image: Professor Michael Barnsley with his blackboard glued on top of a whiteboard in the old maths building.

And as for heritage on campus, is there anything he’ll miss about the old maths building?

Not the board in the old seminar room. “When you slid the board up… I can’t reproduce the sound. You know the sound of fingernails on the blackboard? But much, much worse.”

The old building had whiteboards too, he notes. Some with blackboards glued on top of them.

“That was inspirational to me,” Morrison says, fondly. “In the long run, we can always just glue blackboards over the top.”

If you care about the coefficient of friction of whiteboard markers, you should study undergraduate or postgraduate maths at ANU. We are ranked number one in Australia for maths teaching and research. And we have amazing chalk.

Maths student Ivo Vekemans