Mathematics is abstract: unlike other scientists who depend upon experiments, sometimes requiring sophisticated equipment, mathematicians can only rely on the strength of their reasoning to build rigorous demonstrations of their theorems and distinguish what is true from what is not.
This is why a blackboard is such an indispensable tool: a surface on which mathematicians can materialize their ideas and share them with their collaborators, to help each other choose the most promising paths and detect flaws in their arguments. And if an idea doesn’t work, it’s not a big deal: what is written on the board can be quickly erased, and one is ready to start over.
At IHES, we know the importance of the role of blackboards, which are given pride of place. They cover the walls of offices, shared rooms and places where researchers normally meet: next to the coffee machine, in the tea room, in front of benches in the sun outside. These are blackboards because writing with chalk is often preferred by the mathematical community.
And to erase? With a brush it’s swiftly done! Except that sometimes the dust is so thick that it is better to use a machine to remove it.
Discover in pictures why mathematicians and theoretical physicists at IHES enjoy their blackboards so much:
The latest board to arrive at IHES is an exception: it is a digital board. A large screen attached to the wall, on which one can write with a special pen. The first board of this type at the Institute was specific to the meeting room, allowing video-conferences to be held, but this one is really a tool that joins the range of boards available to our researchers. If blackboards are generally the preferred tool of mathematicians, in this period of social distancing and online meetings, this new device has immediately gained many fans at the Institute. The board allows one to save their notes and share them with collaborators, or instantly translate handwritten formulas into lateX code, ready for the next paper. Maxim Kontsevich, a permanent professor at IHES since 1995 and a 1998 Fields madalist, is a great user of this new equipment and he explains its advantages in the video below.