NEWS: Web Math Made Easy

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Science  17 Apr 1998:
Vol. 280, Issue 5362, pp. 351
DOI: 10.1126/science.280.5362.351a

Talking shop on the I-Way will soon be a lot easier for scientists and mathematicians, thanks to a new computer language released last week by the group that sets Web standards ( The language, which should also be a boon to blind scientists, will for the first time allow people to write mathematical formulas in an HTML document.

Until now, formulas had to be presented as images pasted in a document. As a result, to read Los Alamos physics preprints, for example, one has to add a plug-in such as Acrobat to their Web browser, says Robert Miner of the University of Minnesota's Geometry Center.

That will change with the advent of an HTML dialect called Math Markup Language (MathML) developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a dues-funded group of tech companies. MathML has two ways of encoding a formula, says Miner, who helped write it. One, better for high-quality printing, specifies the exact appearance; for example, it might encode “pi squared” as the Greek letter pi with a superscript of 2. The other captures semantic meaning: It encodes “pi squared” as 3.14 multiplied by itself. Formulas made this way can be understood by screen-reading software. According to W3C, this will allow visually impaired people to work with math “in a way that has never been feasible.”

You still need a plug-in for MathML, but two types are available for free (as is MathML) at the W3C site. One benefit of MathML is that because formulas are text, not images, documents can be searched or indexed by formula. “I think that will have an enormous impact on the scientific enterprise,” says Miner, who hopes most scientists will be using it within a year or two. Not everyone is so sanguine, however: One industry computer scientist says he has “mixed feelings” about MathML, because like so much Web computing, it's “good for the mass market” but may not meet the needs of “a sophisticated user.”

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