When did Math-phobes take over the Blogosphere?

27Jun06

I want to write a post describing a clever derivation of Noether’s Theorem in Walter Greiner’s book Field Quantization, but I’m thwarted by my inability to use LaTeX mathematical typesetting in this blog. Rest assured the thought that I was going to share was really worth reading, but as I cannot share it through this blog, I’d like to use this post to complain about the lack of widespread LaTeX support in blogs.

Despite the large number of math/physics blogs I have found only one blog that regularly uses mathematical typesetting (Mathematics Weblog). Is there really only one island in the blogosphere that regularly makes decent use of mathematical typesetting?

There are certainly physicists out there blogging, but high-profile blogs like Cosmic Variance focus on making high energy physics (and the life of high energy physicists, in Clifford’s case) accessible to a general audience rather than the nitty gritty. Lubos Motl and Peter Woit regularly blog about string theory, but they’re shackled by their medium. One can convey information in chunk of equation-less text as efficiently as one could over the phone, and quantitatively discussing mathematical topics over the phone is like trying to use twigs to describe classical music (i.e. it’s brilliant if one can do so successfuly, but altogether not as good as direct communication).

What really surprises me is that there is virtually no demand for wider integration of LaTex into the “everyday-Internet,” i.e. blogs, e-mail, chat. LaTeX is lingua franca of digital mathematics; it provides an easy-to-type (once you’re used to it) way to create documents with equations, graphs, and symbols. In fact, I’m stymied that math and physics students aren’t expected to learn LaTeX early in their undergraduate education… or at all, as the case was at Stanford. (I should note that there is one online community, homework-help forums such as Physics Forums, that regularly makes use of LaTeX.)

The physics community forged a path into the future of scientific publication when it developed the arXiv, an automated electronic archive of research paper “e-prints.” The arXiv, which quickly became a standard, made it easy for undergrads, professors, and crackpots alike to access the latest research. It also provided a way for researchers to lay claim to an area of research (addressing the issue of “scooped” research topics). While an equilibrium between referee-and-paper-based journals and the arXiv has yet to be unanimously determined, E-prints have provided a paradigm shift in physics research. If you don’t believe this, ask any current physics graduate student when was the last time they went to the library to look up an article in a journal. Michael Peskin wrote a nice essay on E-prints in the April 2005 issue of APS News.

Now just as the arXiv was a ‘quantum leap’ (ugh, forgive the pun but it’s appropriate here) in the way we communicate physics, a standard for embedding LaTeX in blogs and instant message interface has the potential to further facilitate the spread of ideas. Instead of waiting for a paper to be published on the arXiv, blogs can allow researchers to briefly discuss questions they’ve been thinking about on the timescale of days (rather than the timescale of paper-writing). IM clients like Adium (if anyone ever uses it) allow students to discuss problems without being limited by physical proximity. By incorporating LaTeX into e-mail standards (something that a benevolent empire like Google might instigate), researchers can efficiently communicate with colleagues without TeX’ing up their thoughts.

I firmly believe that there is a small revolution waiting to happen with LaTeX. To be sure we’re just at the cusp of making a change. Adium with LaTeX and LaTeX-ready forums already exist. It takes very little effort for blog hosts to install LaTeX on their servers. LaTeX is already standard on wikis such as Wikipedia. For all of their creativity, I’m sure the braintrust at Google could incorporate LaTeX into gMail and Google Groups. The only thing missing is the hordes of scientists and students who are pushing to make communication easier by standardizing this. For example, despite there being a LaTeX plugin for WordPress, I cannot use this because free hosts won’t let me install server-side components and I’m too poor to purchase server space where I can load it.

I guarantee that there is at least one disgruntled physics student who would like to be able to share an equation or two with the rest of the blogosphere.

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6 Responses to “When did Math-phobes take over the Blogosphere?”

  1. LaTeXRender (and similar), which fire up a full instance of tex+dvips+ImageMagick for every equation on your page will probably be considered too heavy-weight in most shared-hosting environments.

    There are lighter-weight solutions (for WordPress and MovableType) and I think the latter, at least, works quite well.

    Of course, everything has its downside, and what you can do in most shared-hosting situations can be quite limited.

    I guess it pays to shop around for hosting…

  2. Hi! Thanks for an interesting article. I think that Peter Woit actually has the technology – LaTeXrender – to write TeX into his blog articles. He just does not use it.

    I have tried several emergency solutions to do so and neither is convenient for me so far. I’ve also tried to convince blogger.com to include LaTeX support.

    All the best
    Lubos

  3. An update: a former roommate from Stanford (a computer science major) has forwarded the following link regarding this:

    http://www.forkosh.com/mimetex.html

    Scroll down to the “Public mimeTeX server,” it works quite well.

  4. Here I am, posting on months-old posts, because I’m skimming.

    I ♥ LaTeX, but MathML is the way of the future. (Urs uses a LaTeX2MathML converter, which is not supported on blogspot, to my chagrin.) Except that Safari doesn’t even support that. So on my todo list is switching to Firefox, which does do the MathML thing, if I can just figure out how to easily move all my bookmarks and keychain items.

    Wikipedia is smarter than urs: it looks at which browser is displaying the mathematically-contentful page, and either provides MathML or PDF-ful pages. And stores the math in its own “wiki” format.

    How I would love LaTeX support on Gmail. If they include it in their chat program, I think you’d find lots of AIM-based mathies switch there as well. You and I should mention as much to our friends at Google.

  5. thanks for the article. i was wondering if it was even possible to get LaTex onto one’s blog.


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