Chalk: Materials and concepts in mathematics research

Michael Barany, Donald MacKenzie

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


This chapter devotes close empirical attention to the social and material achievement of proofs, theorems, and other mathematical constructions. Mathematics is often treated as the most abstract and idealized of human practices, so that mathematicians’ words, gestures, handwriting, and chalkboard marking appear to be merely incidental and secondary ways of expressing and conveying mathematical truths. In contrast to that view, the chapter argues that mathematical concepts do not speak for themselves, and that mundane communicative practices and tools provide carefully circumscribed surrogates for idealized mathematical phenomena. Though blackboards are primarily used for teaching and seminars, their material, visual, and narrative features extend across all areas of mathematics pedagogy and research. These features, in many ways analogous to inscriptions and demonstrations in the natural science, also permit an account of the distinctive uses and meanings of formal representations in the mathematical sciences.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRepresentation in Scientific Practice Revisited
EditorsCatelijne Coopmans, Janet Vertesi, Michael E. Lynch, Steve Woolgar
Place of PublicationCambridge, MA
PublisherMIT Press
Number of pages24
ISBN (Print)9780262525381
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jan 2014

Publication series

NameInside Technology
PublisherMIT Press


  • mathematics as material practice
  • blackboard
  • mathematical proving
  • mathematics seminars
  • formalisms and practice
  • inscription and creativity
  • formalisms and translation


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