Math and the Magical Chalk-Apocalypse


My dislike and disdain for math has been well chronicled in this blog for may years. I hold no contempt or ill will for the subject, I just respectfully keep my distance. Given my butchering of geometry in high school, I suspect math holds a similar viewpoint towards me.

As a general rule mathematicians are not known to be an overly superstitious or sentimental group. Known more for their analytical skills than people skills, their personas appreciate facts and figures in lieu of flights of fancy. They see the world in more black and white terms and typically find comfort in the ability to not only see problems, but systematically and methodically solve them in a provable way.

Or so I thought.

Recently, an 80-year-old Japanese chalk company went out of business. Nobody, perhaps, was as sad to see the company go as mathematicians who had become obsessed with Hagoromo Fulltouch Chalk, the so-called “Rolls Royce of chalk.”

Being neither a mathematician nor a chalk artist, I heard about Hagoromo through an article I read. The article talked about the cult like following the chalk has developed among mathematicians and the chaotic effect its demise is having on this distraught community. In fact, the demise of Hagoromo chalk has created such a demand that some professors have begun hoarding and hiding their supply. Professors have begun stashing chalk to the extent an underground black market has begun dealing in a very different white dust than we are used to.

Satyan Devadoss, a Williams College math professor, even wrote a blog post calling it “dream chalk.” He explained:

We are truly in the midst of a chalk-apocalypse!

What is it about this chalk that makes it so special? What possible property could it have that turns these otherwise sane and rational people into people who believe in “mystical and magical properties that must surely emanate from the tears of angels?” 

Sounds more like a Grateful Dead concert than a math convention to me. 

Is it a unique gloss coating? Is it a manufacturing process? Is it the actual chalk used to create the sticks? It doesn’t really matter. 

What matters is that a mathematician's days are filled with concrete concepts and absolute answers. They deal exclusively in binary states of right and wrong and while mathematics can be a very creative field (so I am told), that at its most basic element is not as creative a space as the human spirit requires. 

More than anything, for me, this shows that:

These people want to be a part of the community.
They want to believe in something that isn’t provable.
They want to appreciate that which can’t be measured.
They want to feel something that can’t be explained.

I can appreciate and understand this. It’s likely some of the same reasons I like playing a wood marimba or why I like the chalumeau register of the clarinet. Their love of all things Hagamoro is not that different than my love of all things Grainger. I can’t explain or measure it. I just know it.

Not everyone in the world will be a musician. Not every child will participate in music. But the reasons for its existence are so universal that they manifest itself across every country and throughout every civilization. As humans, we are a creative being. We need to exist outside of just our minds and the vacuum of our own little world.

This is why what we do is important and why you make a difference. MUSIC MATTERS AS MUCH AS MATH! And that is a theory that I can prove.

Just don’t tell Mrs. Stone, my high school geometry teacher. She always said I would one day appreciate math.

- Scott

p.s. You can still buy this chalk here