Why are the last ANU blackboards in its brand new classrooms?
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Why are the last ANU blackboards in its brand new classrooms?

At the ANU's brand new $45 million cyber security centre, code is literally written into the walls.

In frosted glass doors and landings, you'll find snatches of it; clues that, if pieced together, unlock a hidden puzzle snaking up the building.

It's a fitting decor for an institute housing some of the country's finest mathematical minds. But one design feature the ANU's resident mathematicians absolutely insisted on was a little more analogue - blackboards.

Australian National University PhD student Ivo Vekemans and Associate Professor Scott Morrison both prefer using blackboards to communicate complicated ideas to their peers.

Australian National University PhD student Ivo Vekemans and Associate Professor Scott Morrison both prefer using blackboards to communicate complicated ideas to their peers.

Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

"We basically said we're going to need square metres of write-able space," associate professor Scott Morrison says.

"There's plenty of high technology in this building, I'm running simulations on my computer, but ... we still need to write stuff.

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"These blackboards are the last ones at the university ... outside probably a few very old offices.

"Blackboards are part of our history as mathematicians ... when you write on them, you can leave a trail of breadcrumbs for others to follow along. [They're] part of our distinctive culture separate from the computer scientists and the physicists."

No real surprise then that the computer science wing of the centre keeps its machines safely away from chalk dust, in halls dominated by whiteboards.

The new cyber security building houses the ANU Mathematical Sciences Institute along with its Research School of Computer Science, and the Statistical Consulting Unit.

The new cyber security building houses the ANU Mathematical Sciences Institute along with its Research School of Computer Science, and the Statistical Consulting Unit.

Photo: Australian National University

But there will be plenty of boards, black and white, in hallways and shared areas throughout the building, to encourage collaboration.

"Mathematics can be quite social," Professor Morrison says. "If you're having a cup of tea with [colleagues] and talking shop, it's handy to have a place to explain complex ideas quickly ... in a way you just can't talking or typing."

To that end, many of the great mathematical institutions in the world hang blackboards in some "unlikely places", he says, from the corridors of Berkley to the lifts at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques in France. There are even tales from Vienna that the Erwin Schrödinger Institute has blackboards and chalk - in the toilets.

Firmly in the pro-blackboard camp, PhD student Ivo Vekemans says the mark of a hard day's work is brushing chalk off his pants.

"I'll admit there’s definitely some romance involved," he says.

"A blackboard sounds better, you get that nice click-clack sound, it looks better, it feels better, it probably tastes better too."

But it's also about the "friction", he says.

Australian National University PhD student Ivo Vekemans explains his work in infinity categories to Associate Professor Scott Morrison.

Australian National University PhD student Ivo Vekemans explains his work in infinity categories to Associate Professor Scott Morrison.

Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

"Whiteboard markers are too fast, but a blackboard slows you down, it stops you going as fast as your mind is going."

While Mr Vekemans admits the dusty old blackboards of the previous maths building had made him an early whiteboard enthusiast, a stint teaching at the University of Oregon soon converted him.

One high-tech tool the faculty also requested as it moved into the new building was a special kind of chalk, Hagoromo Fulltouch.

Imported from Korea, this "Rolls Royce of chalk" costs more per box than your standard stuff but lasts longer and writes better, as Mr Vekemans can attest after conducting an experiment on the university's blackboards.

"We costed it all," Professor Morrison says. "Before it was [revived in Korea], the original Japanese company that made the chalk shut down so you had mathematicians all over the world stockpiling the stuff."

Sherryn Groch is a reporter for The Canberra Times, with a special interest in education and social affairs

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