The complex Mathematica now comes with a friendlier interface
- By John McCormick
- Mar 16, 1998
Did you hate math in school but now need it at work? Mathematica is for
you as much as for engineers and scientists who feel at home with numbers.
Users have come to regard their PCs as word processors, database hosts or graphics
generators. Most of us forget that computers were designed to be number crunchers. Wolfram
Research never forgot. I would not have recommended Mathematica for mainstream
professionals until this version.
I always liked the package despite its horrendously unfriendly interface. After all,
anything was better than trying to do symbolic analysis by hand. Mathematica can solve an
equation in minutes that without a computer would take a year.
I seldom use the program, so I've had to relearn the interface each time. I found it
difficult despite my university training in physics and math up to the tensor analysis
level. I could not see math phobes liking the software, no matter how powerful it was.
But now Version 3 has a notebook-style scratchpad interface that brings sophisticated
math down to an average professional's desktop PC.
This version even lets you save projects in Hypertext Markup Language format or call up
the program on an intranet server.
I tested it under Microsoft Windows 95. There are versions for Apple Macintosh, OS/2,
Unix and various mainframes. To do mainframe-level number crunching on a PC, get the
fastest Pentium you can find and load it with a fast CD-ROM drive and 64M of RAM.
Even that won't be too speedy, though in a pinch you can even run Mathematica from the
CD-ROM. Large computations will stall when you don't have enough memory, but I've rarely
You will spend weeks, not hours, learning the package, which is more integrated and
better thought-out than most software. It isn't weighted down with useless bells and
whistles like an office suite; it's just large.
The hard-bound documentation is 1,400 pages. Another 500-page manual covers
Mathematica's 1,000 add-on packages. The documentation is also on the program CD.
The idea behind Mathematica is that everything--numbers, equations, words, sounds, even
graphics--can be represented and manipulated as symbolic expressions.
From the command line, you can enter simple calculations for immediate evaluation or
complex equations for factoring. The output of one analysis can become input for the next.
Most users, however, will prefer the notebook interface to working from the command
line. The notebook scratchpad shows graphs, equations and text, forming an interactive
solution to a problem. The interface lets you store, reuse and share with other users.
Wolfram Research claims Mathematica has the world's largest collection of algorithms.
You can solve problems symbolically or numerically to any chosen degree of precision.
That's important, because you get really, really big answers if you aren't careful. I'm
talking pages full of numbers.
Learning the notation conventions is the initial hurdle, but they are consistent and
not too complex.
For example, depending on whether you add //N after an expression you want evaluated,
you might get a symbolic answer that merely converts your input into standard mathematical
notation, a very large numeric answer (2 to the hundredth power gives a 31-digit result)
or an approximation.
Mathematica is much more than a calculator or super-duper spreadsheet. It embodies a
vast amount of mathematical knowledge. After you understand it, some tough problems become
For example, if you want to know the billionth prime number, just enter Prime[10^9].
That's all there is to it.
Enough about numbers. Mathematica can just as easily manipulate sound files, scanned
images or words symbolically--finding all the palindromes in a word list, for example.
If you work with maps, there are standard Mathematica add-ons to generate world or
country maps (WorldPlot), calculate great-circle distances (Geodesy), or give latitude and
longitude of cities (CityData).
An add-on called Music will find the frequency in hertz that is half an octave above
another note. The command is only a few characters long.
For statisticians, the MultiDescriptiveStatistics add-on has tools for multivariate
data manipulation including skewness, Pearson skewness and kurtosis. I have no idea what
those are for, but a mathematician I know says they are important.
You can call any one of thousands of such add-ons as part of a problem, even loading
specific add-ons each time you run the program.
To interpret and visualize the output in a number of formats, Mathematica gives you an
array of powerful graphics output options.
You can use it as an embedded calculator for Microsoft Excel or within a Microsoft Word
front end. Or you can call routines from any C program using MathLink, which is a third
way to access Mathematica in addition to the command line and notebook interfaces.
My first experience doing math on computers involved Fortran and punch cards, so you
can imagine how much I like something that's easier to use.
This heavy-duty package is just about friendly enough for every professional from
business analyst to graphic artist.
Mathematica is in use at many agencies, and Release 3.0 should make it more widely
If Excel is getting cramped for your big projects, consider working in Mathematica and
linking to Excel for that program's superior business publishing tools.
Or link directly to word processing software. Mathematica does have its own publishing
tools, but they are rather technically oriented.
Wolfram Research had sent me a test package that lacked a password. The version shipped
to buyers has a password and is ready to run out of the box. But while finding this out, I
learned that technical support doesn't receive high priority.
If you've got a question, dig into the Mathematica manuals while waiting for a reply
from Wolfram Research and you may find the answer faster. Fortunately, the documentation
John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s.