A typical professor in the science division at Williams college has three key items on the agenda: teach courses, publish research papers, and apply for grants. Teaching and research are the bread and butter of being a faculty member, but receiving funding from a grant agency (such as the National Science Foundation) gives a tremendous sense of freedom to pursue deep research.
The faculty in departments such as Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Geology, and Physics can use the funding to purchase (quite expensive) equipment (such as lasers, computer servers, telescopes, and chemicals) that can change how research is done at an undergraduate institution like Williams.
But what about Mathematics?
Sure, mathematicians can use some grant funding for travel to conferences, to support some student research over the summer, and to have some pocket money … but are there mathematical equipment that can revitalize, recharge, and revolutionize research?
I have struggled with this question, and I think I have finally found the answer: white chalk. After all, this is the most used and most important piece of equipment in a mathematician’s arsenal. The chalk stained shirt and pants are trademarks of quality teaching and research, as we sacrifice our good looks for the greater good.
If you are not in the mathematics profession, some questions might naturally come to your mind:
1. Are there different kinds of white chalk, some better than others?
A definite yes! Some are hard and some brittle. Some chalk marks are difficult to erase and others wipe away effortlessly. Some make you exert yourself, and other melt beautifully like butter.
2. Does better chalk help you teach better? Do better research?
A resounding yes! Let’s not be dualistic like the ancient Greeks, saying our minds and our bodies are distinct. We are a whole being, where the tools we use to write with impact what we write about. (The same can be said of ballpoint versus fountain pens, but that’s another story.)
3. So what is the best chalk out there?
I have wrestled with this question and spent a bit of time pursing this over my sabbatical last year. There have been rumors about a dream chalk, a chalk so powerful that mathematics practically writes itself; a chalk so amazing that no incorrect proof can be written using this chalk. I can finally say, after months of pursuit, that such a chalk indeed exists. It is called the Hagoromo Fulltouch Chalk.
For those lucky few who have used it, it can truly be called the Michael Jordan of chalk, the Rolls Royce of chalk. It is made in Japan, and is a bit larger than the classical American chalk. Moreover, it comes with a wonderful coating which protects the user from chalky hands. Once you’ve used it, there is no going back.
Unfortunately, it is not cheap, with the current Japanese yen exchange rate and the overseas shipping costs. I better get started on that grant proposal.
Addendum (added 5/1/2015): Story at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSK6-MTv0ug (dream chalk starts at 17:04, this blog post is shown at 19:17). Story taken down by 5/4/2015.