Displaying equations on the web (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Tue, 03 Apr 2012

Displaying equations on the web

How do you show equations on a web page? Every now and then, I write an article that involves math, and I wrestle with that problem.

The obvious (but wrong) approach: MathML

It was nearly fifteen years ago that MathML was recommended as a standard for embedding equations inside an HTML page. I remember being excited about it back then. There were a few problems -- like the availability of fonts including symbols for integrals, summations and so forth -- but they seemed minor. That was 1998.

Now, in 2012, I found myself wanting to write an article involving an integral, so I looked into the state of MathML. I found that even now, all these years later, it wasn't widely supported.

In Firefox I could show some simple equations, like x = 0 x x and x = b ± b 2 4 a c 2 a

But when I tried them in Chromium, I learned that webkit-based browsers don't support MathML. At all. The exception is Safari: apparently Apple has added some MathML support into their browser but hasn't contributed that code back to webkit (yet?)

Besides that, MathML is ridiculously hard to use. Here's the code for that little integral:

<math xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1998/Math/MathML">
<mrow>
<semantics>
  <mrow>
    <msubsup>
      <mo>&int;</mo>
      <mn>x = 0</mn>
      <mi>&#x221E;</mi>
    </msubsup>
    <mfrac>
      <mrow>
        <mo>&dd;</mo>
        <mi>x</mi>
      </mrow>
      <mi>x</mi>
    </mfrac>
  </mrow>
</semantics>
</mrow>
</math>

Ugh! You can't even specify infinity without using an HTML numeric entity. And the code for the quadratic equation is even worse (use View Source if you want to see it).

Good ol' tables

Several years ago, I wrote about the Twelve Days of Christmas and how to calculate the total number of gifts represented in the song.

I needed summations, and I was rather proud of working out a way to use HTML tables to display all the sums and line up everything correctly. It wasn't exactly publication-quality graphics, but it was readable.

More recently, I worked out a way to do exponentials that way, and found a hint about how to do integrals:

now
P (t)  dt
P0 =————
1 + t
0

Looks a little better than the tiny MathML version. But the code isn't any easier to read:

<table border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0">
<tr><td><td align="center"><small><i>now</i></small></td><td></td><td></td></tr>
<tr>
 <td>
 <td rowspan="3" valign="middle"><font size="6" style="font-size:3em" class="bigsym">&#8747;</font>
 <td align="center"><i>P</i>&nbsp;(<i>t</i>)</td>

 <td rowspan="3" valign="middle">&nbsp;<i>dt</i></td></tr>
<tr><td>P<sub>0</sub> =<td align="center">&mdash;&mdash;&mdash;&mdash;</td></tr>
<tr><td><td align="center">1 + <i>t</i></td></tr>
<tr><td><td valign="top"><small><i>0</i></small></td><td></td><td></td></tr>
</table>

The solution: MathJax

And then I discovered MathJAX. It was added recently to the Udacity forums, and I think it's also what MITx is using for their courses.

MathJax is fantastic. It's an open-source library that lets you specify equations in readable ways -- you can use MathML, but you can also use LaTEX or even ASCII math like `x = (-b +- sqrt(b^2-4ac))/(2a) .`

It uses Javascript: you put your equations in the text of the page with delimiters like $$ around them (you can control the delimiters), then run a function that scans the page content and replaces any equations it sees with pretty graphics. (Viewers using NoScript or similar extensions will need to allow mathjax.org to see the equations, unless you make a local copy of the mathjax.org libraries, which you probably should anyway if you're using a lot of equations.)

For displaying those graphics, MathJax might use MathML, HTML and CSS, or whatever, depending on the user's browser ... but you don't have to worry about that. (Alas, even in Firefox, MathML rendering isn't up to par so MathJax doesn't use it by default, though you can specify it as an option if you know your equations render well.)

Here's that integral again, using LaTeX format: $$ P_0 =\int_0^\infty \frac {P(t) dt}{1 + t} $$ and $$ x = {-b \pm \sqrt{b^2-4ac} \over 2a} $$

It's beautiful! And although I don't know LaTex at all -- been wanting an excuse to learn it -- I put together that integral with five minutes of web searching. (The quadratic code came from a MathJax demo page.) Here's what the code looks like:

$$ P_0 =\int_0^\infty \frac {P(t) dt}{1 + t} $$

$$ x = {-b \pm \sqrt{b^2-4ac} \over 2a} $$

MathJax is even smart enough to notice the code there is in a <pre> tag, so I didn't have to find a way to escape it.

I'm sold! The MathJax team has really put together a nice package, and I think we'll be seeing it on a lot more websites. If you want to try it, start here: Getting Started with MathJAX.

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[ 15:45 Apr 03, 2012    More science | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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