• 11.09.12

Photos of Physicists’ Blackboards Reveal The Ghosts Of Theorems Past

Alejandro Guijarro snaps chalk scribbles left behind in the best physics departments in the world.

Physicist Richard Feynman helped build the atom bomb, won a Nobel Prize, and became one of the most famous scientists who ever lived. But even a physicist of Feynman’s stature admitted to grappling with quantum mechanics, famously saying that “I think I can safely say that nobody understands [it].”


Spanish photographer Alejandro Guijarro, fascinated by the philosophical implications of the most challenging branch of physics, has spent the past three years visiting research institutions to photograph their work. But Guijarro doesn’t shoot the professors or students. Rather, at each university he visits, he waits until everyone has cleared out of the lecture hall and then gets to work, snapping beautiful images of the blackboard scribbles they leave behind.

“Before he walks into a lecture hall, Guijarro has no idea what he will find,” explains Tristan Hoare, the curator of a new exhibition of the photographer’s work, Momentum. “What began as a precise lecture, a description of the physicist’s thought process, is transformed into a canvas open to any number of possibilities.” The ideas expressed in each photograph, shot in lecture halls at Oxford, Stanford, CERN, and other research institutions, are incomprehensible to most of us non-physicists. But understanding the content of each blackboard is beside the point. “The images in this series do not purport to be documents holding an objective truth,” Guijarro says.

Fascinatingly, Guijarro says his photographs provide a natural explanation of quantum mechanics:

In grossly simplified terms, according to quantum mechanics, the more precisely the position of a particle is given, the less precisely one can establish its momentum (and vice-versa) . . . While classical physics see the world as the determination of causal natural laws of nature, quantum physics see it as statistical probability, where a specific event is “likely” to happen. In quantum physics the figure of the observer has a fundamental role in the ultimate understanding of a phenomenon.

Got that? Okay. So if what we “know” about the world is an ever-changing “best guess,” these blackboards are like an analog to that process. Every layer of chalk, every erased theorem, every scrape and scratch, for Guijarro, represents another attempt to pinpoint a single fact in a chaotic universe. “They are fragmented pieces of ideas, thoughts, or explanations from which arises a level of randomness,” he adds. “They are arbitrary moments in the restless life of an object in constant motion.”

[Via PetaPixel]

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.