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MathGroup Archive 2005

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How to View Mathematica and Hardcopy Books

  • To: mathgroup at smc.vnet.net
  • Subject: [mg62342] How to View Mathematica and Hardcopy Books
  • From: "David Park" <djmp at earthlink.net>
  • Date: Mon, 21 Nov 2005 03:54:25 -0500 (EST)
  • Sender: owner-wri-mathgroup at wolfram.com

I would like add some of my own comments on two recent threads, namely on viewing Mathematica in analogy to other programming languages and on the competition between electronic books and hardcopy books.

I agree completely with the comments by Andrzej on the limits and even dangers of analogy and the necessity of coming to grips with something new in its own terms. I think that George Woodrow gave a good summary of the merits of electronic versus hardcopy books.

There are various ways to view CAS's, and Mathematica in particular. Some people view Mathematica as a 'souped up calculator'. This is especially true in the educational establishment where they might actually be thinking of making a transition from TI calculators, say, to Mathematica. Their general view seems to be that they don't like it because they don't think it gives the student understanding. By and large they are right - if that is the way they are going to use Mathematica. (There are certainly places where Mathematica as a 'souped up calculator' is just what is needed, perhaps for data analysis in the lab, the hospital or in the field.)

Users who work in the 'souped up calculator' mode are often very reluctant to use outside packages or to write their own code. The fact is that for almost any serious application one will have to add code to the basic kernel commands to make any progress.

A second way to think of Mathematica is as a 'programming language'. At least this goes beyond the 'souped up calculator' viewpoint. It is a programming language, and in many ways a pretty neat one, but I don't think that is its primary merit. People with a computer science background can get a little frustrated with Mathematica because computer science elegance is not its chief point and that is not what the customers are looking for. What I like about Mathematica is that it isn't really like 'programming' at all. It is much more like 'doing mathematics'. I don't care what's going on in the microprocessor. I'm paying my money so I don't have to care about it. I want to get on with the math and science.

Mathematica is much more shaped by what makes things convenient for users, than it is by computer science. It started with Stephen Wolfram wanting to perform symbolic calculations for physics papers. It has always been pushed by the needs of technical computing and the desire to encapsulate technical knowledge in working documents.

So my way of viewing Mathematica and Mathematica notebooks, is as 'souped up pen and paper'. (Or maybe keyboard and paper.) I can write anything I want, do any kind of calculation or derivation I want, draw diagrams and animate them, revise (I spent the morning putting in an equation and the afternoon taking it out), do examples and test my knowledge.

Mathematica notebooks are a revolutionary kind of document. They far outstrip hard copy books and papers. We are just learning how to use them. Although I'm of the older generation and share the fondness for hardcopy books I don't think that in the long run they can compete in the area of scientific, mathematical and technical literature. Many of my technical books are certainly too big to hold open in my hand. If I try to eat and read I can't get the Dover books to lie flat. Because of the technical limitations of books many of them, even by well regarded authors, are full of misprints, errors and poor notation.  When I read a book I often have a hard time understanding the material unless I can think of how I would do it in a Mathematica notebook. Then I have to rush back to my desk. I just wish I had a laptop I could always have with me.

And for those worried about it: electric power will be available at least as much as sunlight and digital copies will last longer than chiseled stone.

David Park
djmp at earthlink.net
http://home.earthlink.net/~djmp/ 


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