Mathematica Review

A lot of people – in and out of school – dislike math. Why? Because mathematics can intimidate those that believe the subject is difficult and only for ‘smart people’. Not true. There are few true math geniuses, so why feel bad for any math deficiencies? If you want to improve your math skills to move from basic arithmetic to being able to do more complicated calculations, consider using a product that helps visualize mathematic formulae. Something like Mathematica.

Mathematica 1.0 was released in 1988 and Business Week lauded it as one of the top 10 products of the year. Version 6.0, released this May is so loaded with improvements that Wolfram considers this release to be the most important since the software was initially released. As there are so many new features, we’ll cover some of the key updates and refer you to see this link for a complete list of new features: http://reference.wolfram.com/mathematica/guide/SummaryOfNewFeaturesIn60.html.

New features
The first improvement we’ll cover concerns dynamic interactivity, which is useful when creating applications to demonstrate or educate. Mathematica now includes the Manipulate function to easily create an interface to control a graphic or computation, so the keyboard, mouse, gamepad and other devices can vary user-entered content.

The Dynamic function also deals with dynamic interactivity, and it provides controls such as sliders or checkboxes to manipulate information and see the changes reflected in real time. And all it takes is a simple call to the function. The Dynamic function can be used with the Table command to allow dynamic table content changes, which is also quite handy.

The next area of improvement is external data integration. A number of professionals use Mathematica to evaluate their data, and version 6 offers a new level of automation to handle external data. There are mechanisms to extract data and metadata from content, as well as built-in support for importing content from the Internet. Version 6 also supports importing PDFs and adds import support for over 120 graphic and sound formats – much more than in previous releases.

Another new feature is load-on-demand data sources. These sources offer hundreds of gigabytes of data populated from Wolfram’s online data server, covering Math, Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Geography, Linguistics, and Finance. This data is stored on Wolfram servers and is constantly updated and downloaded as needed by Mathematica, so don’t worry about tying up a few terabytes of local storage with unnecessary data.

Referring to data accessible on load-on-demand, are you curious about the differences between Aspirin and Tylenol? No problem. Mathematica displays the chemical structures for these two medications. Need the atomic weights of some elements for a chemistry assignment? Got it covered. Want to find the 10 nearest stars for that science-fiction novel you’ve been pondering for years? Easy. Need to know the population of a country or city? Mathematica can do all this and more.

The information is available to Mathematica programs, so you can generate dynamic content for various projects, then utilize Mathematica’s export capability to output that data in a variety of formats. Can it get much easier to provide educational materials?

Wolfram has made some much-needed programming improvements for this release of the software. Programming in Mathematica is no longer a chore requiring myriad Print statements to locate program error sources. Version 6.0 includes a source-level debugger that provides breakpoints and stepping, just like traditional software development environments.

Web resources
Mathematica is used by a wide variety of people – professionals, students, and hobbyists – young and old. Wolfram’s website has an impressive list of industries and educational institutions that use Mathematica, and some universities have agreements with Wolfram Research to provide Mathematica for their students. Graduating students cannot continue to use the student version of the software when they leave school, but Wolfram does offer an upgrade program to allow the new grad to get a break on the upgrade.

The Mac OS X version of Mathematica 6.0 is 32-bit only – not 64-bit. This is the only negative I found, and it is due to issues with 10.3.x and 10.4.x.

Wolfram has a number of websites for users of their products. To view 1,300+ interactive open source Mathematica 6.0 demonstrations that use the free Mathematica Player, be sure to visit http://demonstrations.wolfram.com/.

Most of these open source demos were done before the final version of the software was released, so Wolfram expects to see a lot of growth in this area over time.

Check out the Wolfram websites. You might be surprised how much fun math really is – especially outside of a classroom.

OUR VERDICT

Loaded with improvements over version 5, and incredibly powerful and robust, this is the first application we’d buy for a student attending secondary school or university that needs to do research or math for any class. It’s the best software we’ve ever used and a must-have for casual and serious students and science professionals.

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