Open source software package takes aim at high-cost math programs

A new open source mathematics program is looking to push aside commercial software commonly used in mathematics education, in large government laboratories and in math-intensive research.

The program’s backers say the software, called Sage, can do anything from mapping a 12-dimensional object to calculating rainfall patterns under global warming.

Sage is an browser-based open-source tool developed at the University of Washington that the school says more than a hundred mathematicians from around helped build.  The package combines powerful number-crunching with new features, such as collaborative online worksheets, the school said.

"For about 10 years I had been really unhappy with the state of mathematical software," said William Stein, associate professor of mathematics and lead developer of the tool. The big commercial programs – Matlab, Maple, Mathematica and Magma – charge license fees. The Mathematica Web page, for example, charges $2,495 for a regular license. For another program, a collaborator in Colombia was quoted about $550, a special "Third World" discount price, to buy a license to use a particular tool, Stein said in a statement.  

In addition, commercial programs don't always reveal how the calculations are performed. This means that other mathematicians can't scrutinize the code to see how a computer-based calculation arrived at a result, Stein said.

Last month, Stein and David Joyner, a mathematics professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., published a letter in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society in which they argue that the mathematical community should support and develop open-source software.

In early January, thousands of mathematicians will gather in San Diego for the joint meeting of the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America. In the exhibition hall, Stein has paid the first-timers' rate of $400 to rent a booth alongside those of the major mathematical software companies, where he and students will hand out DVDs with copies of Sage.

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