Mathics – A Free, Light-weight Alternative to Mathematica

We all use mathematics in our every day lives, be it to a greater or lesser extent. you might add up your change to pay for that coffee, or you might calculate the best value for money when faced with a couple of options, or you might use it to calculate your spending budget for each week. These are all basic uses of maths that can be done in your head or on paper. But what if you need more calculation power? What if you need to calculate and display complex functions? Well, then you need a Computer Algebra System (CAS), and Mathics is one of the best — for free.

Mathics can be used by anybody, but those who use it for more complex calculations, for work or study for example, are the ones who will most benefit from it. They will likely need a way to display, calculate and share their formulae, calculations and workings. This is where Mathics.org comes into its own with an online interface and powerful backend.

Don’t be scared away by the idea of an application targeted primarily at mathematicians; it’s very accessible for people who want to carry out even the most basic of tasks. This is primarily thanks to the documentation and the easy to use interface. if you have even a passing interest in maths it is worth a look.

You can use it as an online calculator as much as an algebraic tool. Type in “2+2” and hit Shift+Enter and guess what, it tells you the answer is 4. Type in any simple arithmetic and it will process the result and display it on screen. It will also do more complex calculations:

MathicaGraph

The 3D mapping functions in Mathics are very impressive.

It goes without saying that arithmetic is the most basic use for Mathics. When it really starts to shine is when you start to use if to show complex calculations such as matrices and 3d representations of graphic equations. The list of supported symbols and functions is extensive and too large to write here, do check it out to see if it has what you want (it probably has!)

Getting Started

The documentation for Mathics is very good. Documentation can make or break an application such as this. The way that the formula must be written and can be calculated can differ greatly so knowing the intricacies of the syntax required is paramount.

MathicsWelcome

The documentation is impressive and the examples are extensive.

By hitting the Documentation button you will open up the documentation pane on the right hand side of the interface. This is split into a number of sections for different functions with samples for each. There are also a large number of examples of how to do a lot of tasks that range from common to very complex and less frequently used. Having these examples is very useful for getting used to the environment in which you are working.

Mathics(2)

The examples provided range from simple to complex

Interface

According to the welcome message Mathics is “a general purpose computer algebra system”. The no nonsense tag line fits with the rest of the appreciation, its simple, to the point and clean.

The interface is clean and minimalist in its design. This means that the maths is the focus of the application, not some flashy design. That’s not to say that the design hasn’t been carefully thought about, it is intentionally simple and keeps itself out of the way. This is often harder to design than a more complex design as it is imperative that only the essentials are present in the UI.

Installation to Your Machine

The web app suffers from the same problem as most in that it is not available offline. For a casual user this isn’t usually a problem, you can wait until you get a connection back and work on it then. But if you rely on it for work for example then you might want to consider the desktop installation. The features are the same, but it doens’t require the use of an internet connection to allow you to use the app.

The download instructions are good, the completeness of the installation instructions varies with platform

The download instructions are good, the completeness of the installation instructions varies with platform

It does require a bit of preparation in the form of installation of prerequisites to get it working on a local machine, namely a Python 2.5 installation, along with SQLite and GMP support. The target platforms are Linux and OS X with Windows being more a case of working it for out yourself. Once installed the interface is much the same as on the web interface so it is not a case of having to relearn everything once you have installed the application.

Mathics vs Wolfram Mathematica

It is very easy to see the similarities between the two, and this is very simply due to the fact that Mathematica was a heavy influence on Mathics. This isn’t a secret or even close; Jan Poeshko the writer of Mathics has said as much. The syntax is similar so it isn’t too challenging to move from one to another.

Wolfram2

Wolfram Mathematica has a similar interface and functionality.

Mathics is not quite as capable as Mathematica, which is hardly surprising given the relative scale of the creators. One major advantage is that Mathics is online which, at the moment, Mathematica is not.

The Future of Mathics

Jan Poeshko is the creator of Mathics. He was inspired to create a mathematics tool that was readily available, free and open source, as an alternative to Wolfram Mathematica. Jan is now working for Wolfram Research as a kernal Developer on Mathematica Online, paise if ever there was any that his idea is sound and that he is the right person to take it forward. Unfortunately, though, he has had to stop actively coding for Mathics for obvious reasons. More can be found on Jan’s Space.

Conclusion

Mathics is a great tool for those who need to do anything from the most basic of calculations to the most complex. It is a free, open source tool which is easy to use, versatile in its platform and full featured. Sure, it lacks some of the features of Wolfram Alpha, but it can still hold its own in most situations. It’s only sad that it may not keep going from here.


Summary

A true alternative to Wolfram Mathematica. The fact that it is open source and completely free is the icing on the cake. It does have a few features that are less developed than Matehmatica, but considering that this is a private venture it's totally understandable. Well worth looking at, give it a go.

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