Mathematica turns 20 – Math geeks drink champagne in cave!

June 26th, 2008 | Categories: math software, mathematica, retro computers | Tags:

I have just returned from the 9th International Mathematica Symposium which was held in Maastricht last week where, among other things, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the release of Mathematica. The birthday itself was on June 23rd and, as luck would have it, this was also the day of the conference dinner at the wonderful man-made caves of Geulhem so all of the IMS delegates celebrated in style. I will write more about the conference itself in a future post – once I get hold of the some of the photos.

For now, I simply wanted to highlight the fact that Wolfram have made a scrapbook that shows some of their developments over the last 20 years. We were shown a preview of it at IMS and I think there is some great material there including the complete manual for Mathematica’s predecessor, SMP (Symbolic Manipulation Program) – great for getting a flavour of how computer algebra was done in the 1980’s. While on the subject of SMP – there is a couple of screenshots of it running on a minicomputer. If you have never heard this term before you might be forgiven for thinking that a minicomputers were small, but in fact they were only small compared to the gigantic mainframes of the day. Essentially a minicomputer was the size of a two or three family washing machines as compared to the size of a house for a mainframe (or something like that – I was only 10 at the time so can’t remember!). If anyone is looking for a project, it would be very cool to get a copy of the original SMP code to work on a modern mini-computer such as a mobile phone. I wonder what the license issues are….

There are also details of the early development of the Mathematica language. What I find interesting here is how much of the early ideas survive in the present system. For me, reading code from that 20 year old dialect of Mathematica felt a little like reading victorian english – slightly odd but perfectly understandable.

I also enjoyed reading the media reactions to those early versions…one entitled “Twilight of the pencil?” by William Press for example. I find it interesting that, despite the remarkable evolution of packages such as Mathematica over the last two decades, I have yet to find a Mathematician who never does any pencil and paper maths.

I remember when I first discovered Mathematica ,version 3.0 I think it was, running on some sort of ancient Unix based system which my University had christened Newton. It was in the first month of my PhD and I had been wrestling with some terrifying looking (to a freshly minted grad student at least) integrals that were taking me ages to evaluate by hand. My PhD supervisor was a symbolic integration master and during this phase of my work I was learning loads of shortcuts and tricks that you never get taught as an undergraduate. Even with these tricks though, the work was starting to get out of hand.

One integral took me 8 A4 pages of paper to evaluate and when I took the result to my professor she glanced at it and said “that’s wrong.” For an moment I thought she already knew the answer and had just set me the problem as an exercise but she then went on to show how my result was not dimensionally consistent. A day’s work later and I had the correct answer. Over coffee someone said “There’s a package called Mathematica that could probably do those integrals – it’s installed on a machine here somewhere – maybe go and try it out.”

It took a day to find the name of the machine with Mathematica installed, another day to find said machine, 5 minutes to learn how to feed my problem to Mathematica and then about 30 seconds to reproduce several days worth of manual labour. I was in love! You would think that the pace of my research would have accelerated but I got very sidetracked learning what else I could do with my new toy.

If you have any stories concerning your early Mathematica experiences, feel free to share them in the comments section.

Oh, and the scrapbook is here –

Conrad Wolfram with Mathematica's Birthday cake.  Picture by  Veikko Keränen

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