Rage of the Blackboard: A Tour

I’ve always found great beauty in the way illustrations can convey a lot of information in a succinct, elegant, and beautiful way. I am a big fan of art especially when it intersects with math.

While on Twitter, I ran into a wonderful illustration of Field Medalist Maryam Mirzakhani on May 12 (see Figure 1). Her birthday was chosen as a day to celebrate women in mathematics (you can read more in: A Holiday For Celebrating Women In Mathematics, May12.WomeninMath.org, along with this excellent summary of the Gender Gap in Science Project).

Figure 1: Obtained from Rage the Blackboard post in honor of Maryam Mirzakhani. 

This wonderful illustration was made by mathematical physicist and illustrator Dr. Constanza Rojas-Molina (who sometimes also goes under the pseudonym E. A. Casanova for her illustrations).

Originally from Chile, she is a Lecturer at the CY Cergy Paris University in France. She is also the author of the blog The RAGE of the Blackboard, where she interviews female scientists and reflects on life in academia.

Rage the Blackboard is divided into four sections: the main part of the blog, Blackboard Whisperers, The Questionnaire, and Art&Science. Each section features different styles of interviews or graphic summaries. For example, one questionnaire features is that of Francisca Onaolapo Oladipo (see Figure 2) a Computer Scientist in Nigeria, and a participant of the 2017 edition of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum. “She developed educational software to help girls that couldn’t attend school (or weren’t allowed to) in some parts of her country”.

Figure 3: The Questionnaire of… Francisca Onaolapo Oladipo  from Rage The Blackboard.

One of the first things that caught my attention on the blog was the name itself. As she describes on her blog,

“The blog’s title makes reference to an angry blackboard, but also to the RAGE Theorem, named after the mathematical physicists D. Ruelle, W. Amrein, V. Georgescu, and V. Enss.  Imagine an electron moving in some material, like a metal surface or block.

Mathematically, one can describe how the movement of the particle evolves in time and space, using a wave function to represent the probability that the particle is somewhere at a given time (the quantum analog of its position in space), and using a linear operator (called Hamiltonian) to represent its energy, where the effect of the environment on the particle is encoded.

The RAGE theorem relates, roughly, the time evolution of the wave function with the spectrum of the operator. More specifically, with the  spectral measure, an object that encodes the nature of the spectrum. This theorem is a beautiful example of how something more concrete and “physical”, like the dynamics of the particle (will the particle stay or will it go?), is associated to a more abstract notion as the spectral measure of a linear operator acting on a Hilbert space.”

If this explanation of the RAGE Theorem has piqued your interest you can also find a fantastic illustration of it (see Figure 3). What I love about this illustration, it’s the way it decomposes the different aspects/components of the theorem: authors and years, the statement with a small summary of its components, along with some its motivation.

Image describes the statement of the Rage Theorem.

Figure 3: The Rage Theorem illustrated by Dr. Rojas-Molina.

I was so curious about the inspiration behind it, that I reached out to Dr. Rojas-Molina to get to know more about what motivated her to illustrate and start her blog.

VRQ: Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself and your blog?

CRM: I’m a mathematician. I’m originally from Chile, and I have moved a lot. I did my graduate studies in France, and after visiting for a while in Slovenia, I did my postdocs in Germany. I was a lecturer in Germany and now, in France. I work on random Schrödinger operators and Anderson localization, a topic in the field of mathematical-physics that combines analysis, probability, and physics.

I’m also an illustrator, whenever I’m not dealing with operators or writing grant proposals. I combine all of my interests in a blog called The RAGE of the Blackboard (RAGE as in the RAGE theorem), where I interview established female mathematicians and write about academia and maths. In this blog, I write and illustrate the articles myself, and I think of it also as a playground for experimenting in science communication. Lately, I’ve been using other social media platforms for my work, like Twitter and Instagram, but I still work on articles for my blog. Even if it looks like I’m not very active there, I have a pile of material waiting for my next holidays to get ready for the blog!

VRQ: What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned through blogging?

CRM: I’ve learned a lot from my interviewees. All of them taught me something. One thing stands out: their definition of success is very different from the usual one. It had more to do with having a balanced life and a satisfactory experience with research and teaching, than with awards and competition. They were compassionate, they thought of their students when thinking of teaching and their collaborators when thinking of research. It’s a very human take on professional success, and it’s what I aspire to. I would like to add one more thing. What I’ve learned overall:

  • Doing the blog has taught me a lot about processes, starting from an idea until reaching a finished outcome. I intended it as a playground to experiment and it’s exactly what I did. I learned about how to run an interview, recording, transcribing the audio, communicating with the interviewees, selecting the text, trying to make a coherent story.
  • I learned to promote the articles in social media, to go out, and show my work and the work of my interviewees. To illustrate the articles I read a lot about my interviewees and their research! I browsed their research articles and sometimes even their Ph.D. theses. I learned a lot about how women mathematicians run their professional and personal lives, how they find balance, and how academia works.
  • Not everything worked out well, and I also learned from my mistakes. I learned to be less naive, to know somethings might go wrong, and to organize myself accordingly.I also learned a lot about myself. What is important to me and what is not, who inspires me, and what is the academic I want to be.

VRQ: I am fascinated by your art, what motivated you to become an illustrator?

CRM: I’ve always been interested in drawing. Since I can remember, I was always drawing everything around me. We all start like that, but some people stop. I just kept doing it, and I always loved to hear and to read stories, so comics were my favorite medium. At some point during my Ph.D., I started drawing what I would see around me: academia, maths, and the lack of women in science.

The Ph.D. can be frustrating at times, so drawing helped me process and cope with it. Those are still the main topics in my illustrations because it’s what I’m exposed to in my daily life, and what interests me the most. I’m not interested in simply mirroring my experience on paper, but to make a reflection, and criticism when necessary. Because there’s beauty, but it’s a very imperfect beauty. Scientists are human, after all!

VRQ: Do you have advice for other mathematicians interested in creating their blog/illustrations?

CRM: I would suggest finding your community. Even if it’s you and one friend. Being a scientist and science communicator is still rare in the academic environment, so it can be a very lonely experience. Besides that, there isn’t something in place to help with the transition out of academia in case you want to do science communication full time. But actually, there are communities of science communicators out there and there are many events for people with similar interests, so go out and meet them! It’s great to have people to give you objective feedback and constructive criticism. And lastly, remember: “finished, not perfect” (a quote by illustrator Jake Parker).

Do you have suggestions of topics or blogs you would like us to consider covering in upcoming posts?  Reach out to us in the comments below or let us know on Twitter (@MissVRiveraQ).

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About Vanessa Rivera-Quinones

Mathematics Ph.D. with a passion for telling stories through numbers using mathematical models, data science, science communication, and education. Follow her on Twitter: @VRiveraQPhD.
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