Admiring Chalkboards

If you could attend a quantum physics lecture and view the scribbled equations on the chalkboard, what would you see?

This Is Colossal:

Artist Alejandro Guijarro... spent three years traveling to the quantum mechanics departments of Cambridge, Stanford, Berkeley, Oxford and elsewhere to shoot large format photographs of blackboards just after lectures. Completely removed from the context of a classroom or laboratory and displayed in a gallery, the cryptic equations from one of the most formidable branches of physics become abstract patterns of line and color.

I don't know what it's like to launder dimension and manifold from the abstractions that Guijarro captures on film. But I do have an amateur's appreciation for what poetry can achieve, and hear in the physicality and phrasing of favorite works the sound of an echoing. It's amazing to me that any one person can do this, and, like my respect for poets, I deeply admire the mathematicians who can skillfully arrange and rearrange their symbolic material until its full and ineluctable sense materializes. And it would appear that mathematicians find the aesthetics pleasing too. A recent study showed that the brain area associated with emotional reactions to beauty activates when mathematicians view elegantly stated formulas.

This takes time. Artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer said in his IdeaFestival 2013 talk that the job of an artist was to "slow down" and "to intercept" communication, by which I think he meant that in an age when so many answers are available to our fingertips, the human preoccupations with place and meaning are largely the same. We long to understand. As a non-mathematician, I am reminded that the line and color represented in Guijarro's images do not just present a pleasing appearance, but for those who have managed to describe the very nature of these vanishingly small realities, the culmination of a life's work. Of course there were dead ends, blind alleys and the faintest of intimations along the way. Few of us will ever write something as penetrating as Schrodinger's equation or prose with Auden's thrilling brevity. We will come no closer, alas, than pictures of scribbles. We will wonder.

What goes there?

Stay curious.


Reading the post at Colossal reminded me of autistic savant Daniel Tammet talking about his love of numbers at the IdeaFestival nearly four years ago, a moment captured in this 12 minute video. Enjoy.