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A Rare Chalk in the World of Math: How Tools Change How We Work

A Rare Chalk in the World of Math: How Tools Change How We Work

chalk

Working with computers can be pretty esoteric — after all, the reason why DFC exists as a professional team is because folks who prefer to focus on other things need our network-wrangling, cloud-tapping expertise (link: http://dfc.com/solutions/). That is the very same reason I have an accountant, and my accountant, in turn, has a dentist: everyone has a speciality; one that is often a mystery to the other professions!
 
Despite their differences, one commonality that I think ties together professionals of all stripes is a love of craft. I see this in the care David takes over the creation of our line of sauces. I see it in artist friends who put so much effort into the selection of a brush or photo negative. And, I saw it in a charming video from the Great Big Story people, about one of the most esoteric professions, mathematics, and how practitioners of the abstract science are OBSESSED with, of all tools, chalk.
 
Specifically, a Japanese brand of chalk, called Hagoromo Fulltouch, so prized for its smoothness, density, and line that one user dubs it “the Rolls Royce of chalk.” Mathematician David Eisenbud describes the almost cult-like initiation he had into the knowledge of Hagoromo chalk fondly:
 
“I discovered it when I went to visit the University of Tokyo and one of the professors there said to me, you know, we have better chalk than you do in the States and I said, oh go on, chalk is chalk. And so I tried it out, and I was surprised to find that he was right.”
 
Hagoromo chalk became something of MacGuffin for high-level mathematicians, and with its popularity being driven almost as much by scarcity as its near-metaphysical writing properties. Users across the world relied on business trips to Japan or sympathetic Japanese colleagues to maintain their supply — until the company went out of business in 2015. Says Professor Brian Conrad:
 
“I sort of jokingly referred to it as a chalk apocalypse. So I immediately started hoarding up as much as I could. […]

I was probably selling it regularly to maybe eight to 10 colleagues. I would reach into my cupboard in my office and pull out another box and we’d do the deal in my office. Yeah, we all had a chalk fix. And we still do.”
 
A Korean company bought up Hagaromo’s manufacturing machinery and formula, so the critical moment of the chalk’s extinction has been delayed. But the hoarding described by Prof. Conrad firmly underscores the close relationship between the practice of a profession — or an art — and even the most mundane of tools. The simplest solution can dissolve the barrier between a creator and the Zone; a piece of chalk can unlock a complicated theorem. What simple tool in your everyday arsenal is your Hagaromo chalk?