Friday, May 29, 2009

The Ascent of Freeware

In the last month, a new website created by a team lead by Stephen Wolfram ( has generated considerable interest among mathematicians, scientists, engineers and the wider community. In the popular media, the site is characterised as an attempt to challenge the supremacy of "google" but a visit to Alpha Wolfram will quickly reveal that the site offers a very different service. For example, one can type "Integrate x^2cosx" and get a full analytical answer to the integral (including the steps), an alternate solution, a graphical representation of the integral, a definite integral solution and a series expansion of the solution, within seconds. Impressive indeed ! Type in "Solve x^3 + 2x^2 + x - 6 = 0", and the full solution of the cubic with steps and graphical interpretation appear moments later. Certainly, I have been able to think of analytical problems that the software can't deal with and the on line service is not really appropriate for dealing with large data sets (see for powerful freeware for manipulating matrixes and high level scientific programming), but this is nit picking - Alpha Wolfram is a triumph.

Alpha Wolfram places much of the analytical mathematical power of Mathematica and Maple in the hands of anybody with access to the web. AND IT IS FREE ! It will cause mathematics teachers at all levels to re-think what kind of homework questions are worth asking, in particular, it should push assessment towards "setting up the problem" and "analysing the answers", and away from the application of largely mechanical procedures for solving various standard equations. It maybe to early to say the traditional idea of getting a 1st year Engineering student to go through hundreds of standard integrals is now dead but certainly, this approach is in danger of becoming irrelevant and going the way of "log tables" and using Euclid's "Elements" as a textbook.

Viva La Freeware !!

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