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Copyright © 2007, P. Lutus


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I have used symbolic math programs for about twenty years. Most of my experience has been with Mathematica, a very good program, but I can't think of many other programs that cost almost US$2500.00 for a regular purchaser. Over the years I have come to think of symbolic math software as a natural, good thing, like wheat bread, brown rice and spreadsheets. So I have begun researching open source alternatives to Mathematica and Maple, the expensive "big players" in this field.

On first encountering Maxima I wasn't too crazy about it, because its syntax is a bit odd, and it didn't have a nice, readily available interface that shows equations in their natural form:

Equations looked like this:   
             2                         2
       sqrt(b  - 4 a c) + b      sqrt(b  - 4 a c) - b
[x = - --------------------, x = --------------------]
                2 a                       2 a
Instead of this:

But since that first exposure, several GUI interface projects have evolved, particularly wxMaxima, which is one of the few live software projects for this role, and one that I used extensively in developing this article.

There is another GUI called TeXmacs, which produces a very pretty interface for Maxima when it is tuned properly, but I don't recommend it for two reasons. One, their bug reporting link doesn't go anywhere. And two, because of a certain presumption of superiority among TeX advocates, the program won't soil itself by allowing data to be imported, even by way of common clipboard actions, or exported in any real-world file format.

There is nothing so frustrating as to see such a powerful program, able to produce beautiful results, but that refuses to allow anything to be imported into it, or exported from it, regardless of what method one tries.

TeXmacs has a hypothetical future potential if only someone will commence developing it with the aim of curing it of its insufferable snobbishness. For example, if I were to try to show the reader how its display looks, I would be reduced to taking a photograph of the computer screen, for the reason that TeXmacs lives in a parallel universe and sees no earthly purpose in communicating with this one. I must say I am impressed by the purity of those who have developed it to this point, although after trying to use the program, it has come to me that they may all be middle-aged virgins.

Pardon my rant.

After a period of adjustment I have decided Maxima can give me the kind of results I need, including handling some esoteric differential equations that I am fond of. The evolving wxMaxima GUI interface seems stable and has only a few bugs, most having to do with how it handles plotting.

I have a bunch of motives for advocating Maxima apart from having found a useful, free program. One of them is that I would like to see the Mathematica people feel some competitive pressure from the world of open source and reduce their prices. Another is I've decided symbolic math programs are a good thing. Overall I think people learn more, not less, mathematics by having a way to process lower-level math operations — this frees them to think about the big picture, the higher-level concepts so often buried in the minutiae of old-style mathematics.

I think people who need access to symbolic math tools, and who have considered Mathematica or Maple but can't afford them (and even if they can), are missing a real opportunity if they don't give Maxima/wxMaxima a try. I hope this article will encourage people to download these programs and give them a spin.


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