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Writing Math on the Web

The Web would make a dandy blackboard if only we could scribble an equation

Brian Hayes

The world wide web was invented at a physics laboratory, and the first users were scientists and engineers. You might think, therefore, that this new channel of communication would be especially well adapted to scientific discourse—that it would facilitate the expression of ideas like

Click to Enlarge Image


Click to Enlarge Image

If only it were so! The truth is, the basic protocols of the Web offer almost no support for rendering mathematics or other specialized notations such as chemical formulas. Presenting such material on a Web page often requires software add-ons or plug-ins to be installed by the author or the reader or both. Fine-tuning the display of mathematics can be a fussy and finicky process, not much easier than formatting equations with a typewriter. The results sometimes render differently—or not at all—in various Web browsers. This is a sad situation: As the Web has evolved into a thriving marketplace and playground, the scholarly and scientific community that created the technology has not been well served.

The confused state of online mathematical typography is worrisome as well as sad. In years to come the Web will surely be the most important conduit for scientific information. Already it is a major channel for distributing publications and preprints in many disciplines, and it is becoming a venue for less-formal jottings and conversations—everything from homework assignments to blogs. Ideally, the Web would serve as an extension of the blackboard where people gather to talk about science and math during coffee breaks. We need chalk for that blackboard.

The problem is not one of simple neglect. Over the years there have been many earnest efforts to build a reliable facility for writing and reading mathematics online. The trouble is, no one solution has yet gained the kind of widespread adoption that would make it a standard, supported in mainstream Web servers and browsers. Still, there’s room for hope. We have technologies that work, if we can agree on how to use them. And a minor change to the infrastructure of the Web might smooth the way for more online math.

Penalty Copy

Mathematical%20notation%20in%20WikipediaClick to Enlarge ImageEven in the world of ink-on-paper publishing, mathematical notation can be a challenge. In the days when printing was done with metal type, equations had to be assembled by hand, piecing together symbols on individual slivers of metal and shimming them into position. A manuscript with a lot of mathematics was known as “penalty copy” because printers would charge extra to compose it.

By the 1970s, metal type was giving way to optical and electronic typesetting devices, which projected letterforms onto photographic film. In principle the new machinery might have aided mathematical typesetting because characters could be placed with equal facility at any position and scaled to any size. But the software for running the phototypesetting machines offered no easy way to exploit this flexibility. The printed product was often inferior to expertly set metal type.

Enter Donald E. Knuth of Stanford University, who was so discontented with the deteriorating quality of mathematical typography that he set aside other work and undertook to build his own typesetting system. The eventual result was TeX, a formatting language not just for equations but for entire documents. Leslie Lamport, now of Microsoft Research, soon introduced LaTeX, a higher-level language built atop Knuth’s TeX. (The names are pronounced tek and lah-tek.)

The first equation in the first paragraph on this page is encoded in LaTeX as follows:

\nabla \times \mathbf{E}=
-\frac{\partial \mathbf{B}}

Each of the terms beginning with a backslash is a LaTeX command. For example, \frac{}{} constructs a fraction, with whatever appears inside the two pairs of brackets forming the numerator and the denominator. Some commands simply insert a single character, as with \times (×), \partial (∂) and \nabla (∇). The \mathbf{} command applies a boldface font to the bracketed text.

Let me call attention to what is not present in the TeX encoding. There are no explicit instructions for arranging the symbols on the page; all of the geometric details, such as centering the numerator over the denominator and drawing a horizontal bar between them, are handled automatically.

Also missing is any hint of what the equation means; TeX is a language for describing mathematical notation, not for doing mathematics. For example, “∇×E” is merely a sequence of three symbols, with no reference to the operation those symbols denote—namely the “curl” of a vector field, a measure of the field’s rotation or angular momentum. (The first equation is one of James Clerk Maxwell’s four famous equations describing the electromagnetic field. The second example gives two definitions of the Riemann zeta function, revealing a remarkable identity between an infinite sum and an infinite product.)

TeX has transformed the process of putting mathematical ideas on paper. What once required the services of a skilled typesetter can now be done by a mere mathematician. A manuscript can go from the author to a printed journal without human intervention.

But what about the Web, which did not yet exist when Knuth developed TeX? Modern TeX systems produce output in the form of Postscript or PDF files. Although documents in these formats can be distributed over the Web—the arXiv preprint server dispatches thousands of them every day—they are not quite first-class citizens of the Web world. Browsers cannot display Postscript or PDF files without the aid of extra software, and many readers choose to download such files and view them offline or print them. This works well enough for static documents such as journal articles, but it’s not ideal for the more volatile and interactive areas of the Web, such as blogs or the always-under-revision pages of Wikipedia. For mathematics to be fully at home online, it needs to be translated into one of the Web’s native languages.

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