Power User: Mathematica 5 can solve the big ones

John McCormick

The jury's still out about the claims in Stephen Wolfram's book, A New Kind of Science. But I expect most users would agree that his desktop mathematics program, Mathematica, from Wolfram Research Inc. of Champaign, Ill., is one of the supreme examples of programming.

If that sounds a bit strong, you probably never worked for weeks back in the slide-rule days trying to simplify or, worse, numerically solve a complex equation. In the 15 years since its first version, this program has freed countless mathematicians and engineers from the tedium of solving equations.

It's simple enough for almost anyone who works with numbers. As a calculator, it's unsurpassed on both Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS platforms, both to solve problems numerically and to produce symbolic solutions. It runs under Linux and Unix, too.

Advanced users treat Mathematica more as a programming language or development tool than as a calculator. It's a publishing system and a powerful graphics tool as well.

Nearly five years have passed since the last major release; there have been tweaks to the user interface and some underlying software. But Mathematica 5 also has important new features. Foremost among them is support for the evolving Microsoft .Net framework.

Sparse-matrix support, important for many real-world applications involving a gigantic matrix where most of the elements are zero, has improved enough that Wolfram claims it is on a par with the premier matrix-solving software, Matlab from MathWorks Inc. of Natick, Mass. I don't have a recent copy of Matlab and can't vouch for that, but I do know Mathematica 5 can handle sparse matrices it couldn't before.

Mathematica was always strong in linear programming for economics and engineering, but faster algorithms now make it practical for use with as many as 1 million variables. And 64-bit processor support gives Mathematica access to 1T of address space'another claim I didn't test.

Even a nonexpert can set up a Mathematica notebook into which users can plug data just as they might into a spreadsheet template.

If you already use Mathematica, you'll want to upgrade. You can download a trial version of this $1,880, 90M program by going to www.gcn.com and entering 161 in the GCN.com/search box.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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