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Re: Mathematica and some General Comments

  • To: mathgroup at
  • Subject: [mg97187] Re: Mathematica and some General Comments
  • From: AES <siegman at>
  • Date: Sat, 7 Mar 2009 02:40:57 -0500 (EST)
  • Organization: Stanford University
  • References: <goqphr$lt2$>

In article <goqphr$lt2$1 at>,
 "David Park" <djmpark at> wrote:

> The 2 January 2009 issue of Science was largely devoted to 'Education and
> Technology'. There were many articles about the use of 'computer games',
> 'virtual reality', java applets and such but I could not find a single
> mention of Mathematica or even CASs in general. To me, this is absolutely
> incredible! I cannot see anything that can come even close to Mathematica
> for students who actually want to DO some mathematics or learn some
> technical subject matter. I'm thinking of actually organizing calculations,
> derivations or proofs, trying examples and alternative methods, and
> describing and explaining the methods. Isn't this what 'STEM' education
> should be all about?
>  A year or so ago, on sci.math.symbolic a high school student stated that he
> was interesting in studying pure mathematics and wanted to know what
> computer language he should learn to further that goal. There were hundreds
> of responses with some threads going to great depth. As far as I could find,
> there was not a single mention of Mathematica and only one reference to
> using a CAS. Everything else concerned the merits of C++, Perl, List,
> Fortran etc. To  me, this again was incredible.

I am absolutely as saddened and dismayed by the above observations as I 
believe David Park is -- but unfortunately also not much surprised by 

I would especially endorse every word of the last three sentences of the 
first paragraph above.  I have long believed in, and personally and 
extensively used Mathematica for exactly those purposes, in research, 
teaching, educating, learning, publishing, lecturing, and personal 
avocations, ever since the day I got my hands on Mathematica version 1 
(and, in fact, I pursued all those objectives using RealBASIC, Igor, 
Excel, and other even more primitive tools well before that).

On the other hand, I am also (equally sadly) not at all surprised by the 
above observations.  The bizarre and idiosyncratic and dysfunctional way 
that Mathematica has evolved, in its structure and syntax, in its user 
interface, in its pricing, and in its documentation, among other 
factors, all contribute significantly to the dismal situation summarized 
by David above.  I don't understand how things can have gone so wrong 
for Mathematica -- but they have.

Ten years ago I was writing enthusiastic memos to my Deans and Vice 
Provosts for Research, and my university's IT people, urging them to 
invest university funds in Mathematica licenses and bookstore discounts; 
to sponsor (or pay for) free training courses for students, faculty and 
staff through the university; to promote the use of Mathematica 
throughout every even mildly technical area of the university; and to 
make it a kind of semi-official university standard for all areas of 
research and teaching (as they had, at that time, semi-officially done 
for the Mac platform).

To be blunt, if a proposal like that were actually to be taken under 
consideration by my university today -- not that there's any chance that 
this could actually happen at this point -- I would actively oppose it, 
or at least recommend that a major effort be undertaken to explore every 
other possible substitute (and there are some out there) to meet the 
same needs.

> This all leads me to believe that Mathematica is poorly positioned in the
> marketplace. At the present time, static printed documents are the dominant
> method of publication and communication in the technical world.  Mathematica
> is primarily an ancillary tool to produce calculated results and starting
> graphics for these static documents. I believe that static documents are a
> dying technology and they will sooner or later be replaced by active and
> dynamic Mathematica notebooks - or their equivalent. Why? Because they are
> orders of magnitude superior for presenting and explaining mathematical and
> technical ideas. WRI seems to have this concept in mind but one feels that
> they don't take it with full seriousness, or realize the impediments in the
> way.

Unfortunately here we have to part company.  Your second sentence above 
makes it seem as if you've never heard of PowerPoint -- which is very 
possibly "the dominant method of publication and communication in the 
technical world" today -- along with QuickTime, HTML, Flash, Word, TeX, 
LaTeX, the entire Adobe product line, and the ever expanding set of 
online and multimedia journals and innumerable personal and 
institutional web sites, all of which, working together quite 
constructively in most cases, are nearly obliterating "static printed 
documents", in the technical world and everywhere else. 

Mathematica is (or at least in earlier versions was, from the beginning) 
absolutely an insanely great "ancillary tool to produce calculated 
results and starting graphics" (including all kinds of animations) for 
all the objectives we've both agreed upon.  Adding a certain level of 
interactivity to these graphics in recent versions is quite wonderful 

But the idea that these results, along with all the underlying analysis, 
will then also have to be "delivered" (presented, displayed, put on 
screen) (and also organized, maintained, cataloged, re-purposed, 
modified, edited, annotated), using (and _only_ using) Mathematica and 
Mathematica notebooks, is just, in my considered opinion, an absolute 
non-starter -- and a _highly_ destructive concept as well, in its impact 
on the usability of Mathematica for what it's really good at (and where 
it in fact really has very limited competition).

I'm afraid that I'm strongly enough convinced of this point that 
examining this idea further is just of no interest to me.  We should be 
focusing on what's needed to keep Mathematica highly _usable_ for the 
particular things it's really near uniquely _useful_ for, not trying to 
make it a monster tool for everything in the world.

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