As a college student, I already knew that theoretical physicists weren’t like how they were portrayed in movies. They didn’t wear lab coats, or have universally frizzy, unkempt white hair. I knew they didn’t have labs, or plot to take over the world. And I was pretty sure that they didn’t constantly use blackboards.
After all, blackboards are a teaching tool. They’re nice for getting equations up so that the guy way in the back can see them. But if you were actually doing a real calculation, surely you’d prefer paper, or a computer, or some other method that doesn’t involve an unkempt scrawl and a heap of loose white dust all over your clothing.
Over the last few years I’ve come to appreciate the value of blackboards. Blackboards actually can be used for calculations. You don’t want to use them all the time, but there are times when it’s useful to have a lot of room on a page, to be able to make notes and structure the board around concepts. More importantly, though, there is a third function that I didn’t even consider back in college. Between calculation and teaching, there is collaboration.
Go to a physics or math department, and you’ll find blackboards on the walls. You’ll find them not just in classrooms, but in offices, and occasionally in corridors. Go to a high-class physics location like the Perimeter Institute or the Simons Center, and they’ll brag to you about how many blackboards they have strewn around their common areas.
The purpose of these blackboards is to facilitate conversation. If you want to explain your work to someone else and you aren’t using a blog post, you need space to write in a way that you can both see what you’re doing. Blackboards are ideal for that sort of conversation, and as such are essential for collaboration and communication among scientists.
What about whiteboards? Well, whiteboards are just evil, obviously.