Nineteen years ago, Matt Damon spelled out his role as America’s resident math genius on a chalkboard in Good Will Hunting. Now, in The Accountant, Ben Affleck challenges his BFF’s claim on the title, playing the role of an autistic math savant who prefers writing on glass over old-school slate. Affleck hasn’t had much luck convincing us that he can play Smart-Guy roles too, but by one-upping his BFF’s, ahem, board game, he finally makes a compelling case for himself as a science-minded dude.
In the film’s trailer, we see Affleck’s Christian Wolff — an accountant employed by criminals to cook their books — through a window pane as he feverishly writes out a complex jumble of equations, which float above his face in mirror-image. His preference for transparency is shared by a variety of researchers and academics. In the military, for example, glass surfaces, written on from behind, are thought to be used in order to allow viewers to see what’s being written without obscuring the view. Others, like the astrophysicists at Oxford University interviewed by Symmetry Magazine in 2007, think the “artistic” mix of equations and Greek symbols on glass make the academic environment look more “interesting.”
Is this beneficial to the average math savant? While educators have been debating the virtues of using whiteboards versus chalkboards since the former debuted in classrooms in the 1980s, at least one professor — Northwestern University professor of mechanical engineering Michael Peshkin, Ph.D. — eschews both for glass, even putting in the extra effort to mirror write so his students can view what he’s put on his customized board. In an article published by the American Ceramics Society, Peshkin sang the praises of his LED-illuminated glass board, which he calls a “lightboard”: It not only allows him to engage with his students face to face but also makes the recordings of his lectures much more visually compelling. Case in point:
There’s also an argument to be made that transparency invites collaboration. At the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysis and Cosmology in SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, for example, common areas are equipped with glass surfaces and markers, not slate and chalkboards. For a physicist passing in the halls, adding your two cents to your colleague’s equation is a lot easier to do when you don’t have to enter their office to do so.
But the emphasis on the unsociable parts of Wolff’s personality in The Accountant suggest that it’s unlikely he writes on glass because he cares about sharing his equations with anyone else. That doesn’t necessarily mean his choice of writing surface is purely aesthetic; as the camera pans out, we see not just a window pane but an entire wall of glass, reminding us that to figure out math problems that complex, sometimes you simply need more space than a typical chalkboard might provide.