July 13, 2010

Why Mathematicians use LaTeX

LaTeX is a typesetting system that mathematicians are expected to be able to use. In a class I am taking, we had a presentation over it, and my response was too long to reasonably post for the class. So I decided to put it here instead. If you ever wonder why a people who live by publishing papers might use something other than Word or other word processor, here's why...

Why does LaTeX exist, and what does it do?

Because in the 1980's Don Knuth, a perfectionist, wanted to write a book (turned out to be several volumes) about theoretical computer science. He didn't want to have a human typesetter who didn't know what the symbols meant goof up his work, and desktop publishing hadn't happened yet. So he wrote a system that he could use to typeset the book for publishing. Thus, LaTeX is very good for publishing books about topics that involve a lot of math. (Other people, these days, use programs like Quark - which is not very friendly for mathematical notation.)

Why do I not want to use it?

It is not good for writing a note to ask for a meeting time. The setup time can be long, even though it tends to be a one-time job. It does not make pasting gifs from the internet into your document easy. It will try to format your document into a structured whole, even if it is too small to be "structured".

Why do I want to use it?

Because you want to write a topic once, publish it many ways (thesis, reviewed paper, whitepaper, lecture slides, poster, book chapter), and have it look really good every time. Paste the "chapter" preamble on last summers "paper" content, and submit. Another entry on your publication list. And never have to wonder about the location of "the equation on the previous page" again, by using the automatic reference system, that will also rebuild your table of contents for you. And it can handle ALL the math symbols! And BibTeX, and the AMS style sheets, and... essentially, all of the normal and specialty features that mathematicians (including statisticians) need are freely available for it on the web.

How hard is it?

The learning curve is strange, since you can copy and paste from your previous work for most things, and never actually learn it. You do end up learning the special symbols, like \nabla and \pi and \rightarrow. On the upside, these are very handy for understanding other mathematicians in text-only emails and discussion groups. You can even text them!

Why is this important?

Because this is the established format for math publishing. No platform incompatibilities, no version incompatibilities (even though Knuth says the lowercase delta in the 1992 version is better than the "ugly" 1986 version, and is still trying to get people to upgrade), text reflow happens in the expected way, and local formatting is harder than using the appropriate style (local formatting usually breaks the design and layout of publications longer than a brochure). It can produce arbitrarily high resolution graphs from the PS/EPS/PDF graphics output from programs like R (or Adobe Illustrator if you make Tufte-esque graphs the hard way), so your poster presentation can look awesome.

What do I use?

I like the look of LaTeX (it doesn't look like it's from the marketing department, and thus gets a more serious treatment sometimes), and the gradually-becomes-the-easiest way to write math, so I'm actually taking class notes with it. But I'm not "writing LaTeX", I use LyX, which looks like a text editor, has multilingual spellcheck built in (handy for some citations and quotes), can run on both the "numbers" machine and the "office" machine, and a menu where I can look up the proper name for "the integral symbol with the circle on it" when I forget that it's "\oint" (but \varointctrclockwise if you need a little counter-clockwise arrow instead of a circle).


Math symbols http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/LaTeX/Mathematics

"Ugly delta" http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~uno/cm.html

"Handwriting recognition" for LaTeX: http://detexify.kirelabs.org/classify.html

No comments:

Post a Comment