Mathematicians mourn the loss of the 'Rolls-Royce of chalk'

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Marco Werman: In this age of PowerPoints and dry erase boards, this next story might surprise you. It’s about an old fashioned classroom tool: chalk. But not just any chalk. A Japanese brand called Hagoromo Fulltouch chalk, and it’s about to get a whole lot harder to find. The company that makes it says it will be going out of business, and that worries professors like Satyan Devadoss. He teaches mathematics at Williams College in western Massachusetts. Devadoss says that with Hagoromo chalk, the math practically writes itself.


Satyan Devadoss: Let me try to put it to you this way: I guess it’s kind of hard to understand if you’re not holding it or you don’t use this chalk all the time. But a few things--the thickness of the chalk, it’s noticeably thicker than normal chalk, and so it actually has a good heft to it when you pick it up. It has a wax coating on the outside of the chalk, so it actually doesn’t get your fingers chalky and dry as you use it all the time. And actually, when you use it on a good blackboard, it melts beautifully. It’s just elegant when you write.


Werman: So, how many mathematicians still use blackboards and chalk in this day and age? I thought everybody had kind of switched to whiteboards?


Devadoss: Almost every math conference I go to, I would bet 95% if not more adore using a chalkboard. It is the bread and butter of the work that we do.


Werman: Is it a point of honor for mathematicians to continue using a blackboard?


Devadoss: Honor could be the wrong word, but there’s a sense of notion of not losing it. I think what happened in the “˜80s and “˜90s is mathematics was combined with computer science and around that time, because of the technological revolution, computers were easier to produce and became quite fast. And at that time, the computer science faculty actually preferred whiteboards because they didn’t want chalk dust to interfere with their expensive computer equipment. But the math department, on the other hand, were these old stalwarts. I mean, nothing really changed from our perspective. So, the math department has kind of held on to their love of chalkboards.


Werman: So, tell me more about Hagoromo chalk and where it comes from in Japan. Is there like one particular place? Is there an actual chalk mine?


Devadoss: That is a brilliant question that I have no clue the answer for. I am just a user of this beautiful piece of wonder, but I don’t know the technicality of what goes on behind the scenes. In fact, I didn’t even know it was hard to come by until recently when I just found out that they were closing their stores.


Werman: And what are your plans to satisfy your Hagoromo chalk needs now that the company is going out of business?


Devadoss: I was just given a gift of a huge box worth, almost a crate’s worth of chalk, that I have in my office. So, I think I’m going to hold on to that, that will last me for a while, and I can give that as gifts to my students down the line as well.


Werman: So you’re kind of set for a while.


Devadoss: I am. I think this notion of the value of chalk, certainly in the math world, is important because it’s so easy to jump in and edit somebody else’s work. And I think mathematicians also believe their work isn’t just defined by that physical notion of what’s on the board. There’s something deeper going on behind the scenes. And I think chalk is the perfect medium to do this.


Werman: There’s a great scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon and the MIT prof. are doing almost dueling equations, and there’s a kind of musical quality to the chalk when it hits the board.


[Excerpt from Good Will Hunting]


Werman: Do you think that using better chalk makes you better at math?


Devadoss: Absolutely, without a doubt.


Werman: You do?


Devadoss: Absolutely, without a doubt. And I think, you know, the main reason, Marco, is because we are humans, and humans are not people of just minds, right? We have bodies. We are very physical people, so the medium that we use is going to impact what we do. If you are in broadcasting, the type of mic that’s placed in front of you, the type of desk you sit on, or the type of chair--all of these things provide better output.


Werman: Satyan Devadoss, a professor of mathematics at Williams College. Thanks so much for your time.


Devadoss: Marco, thanks so much. It was a pleasure talking to you.