For our November “Staff Pick” Project of the Month, we selected Maxima, a computer algebra system with symbolic mathematical computations for algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and much more. The Maxima team shared their thoughts about the project’s history, purpose, and direction.
SourceForge (SF): Tell me about the Maxima project please.
Maxima team: Maxima is mathematical software; it is the Open Source continuation of one of the oldest computer algebra projects in existence, originally called Macsyma.
SF: What made you start this?
Maxima team: Maxima’s long history started at MIT in 1968, as part of Project MAC (“machine-aided cognition”). In 1982, the project sponsor, the Department of Energy, released a version that is now called DOE Macsyma. Bill Schelter at the University of Texas at Austin maintained one copy. In 1998, Schelter obtained permission from the DOE to release his copy under the GNU General Public License; this is the origin of the Open Source project Maxima. Schelter died in 2001, but a group of volunteers have continued the project.
SF: Has the original vision been achieved?
Maxima team: Macsyma achieved the original vision of a usable multi-purpose Computer Algebra System (CAS); the vision of an Open Source CAS system was achieved by Maxima shortly after project inception. Our current goal is to be good stewards of the Maxima project, improve and streamline the code, ensure its compatibility with various LISP compilers and runtime environments, and incrementally add features that are requested by the user community.
SF: Who can benefit the most from your project?
Maxima team: Mathematicians, physicists, engineers who regularly algebra and calculus problems can benefit the most from a commercial-grade Open Source CAS. Maxima is comparable to, and in some areas, perhaps even superior to commercial CAS packages.
SF: What core need does Maxima fulfill?
Maxima team: Maxima delivers a commercial-grade computer algebra system to the desktop of the serious engineer, researcher, or student.
SF: What’s the best way to get the most out of using Maxima?
Maxima team: Like with any complex tool, practice helps. Read the extensive manual. Also, while the graphical interfaces offered with Maxima, especially wxMaxima, can be very helpful and intuitive. It makes good sense to become familiar with the command-line version, which can be very beneficial when dealing with complex problems.
SF: What has your project team done to help build and nurture your community?
Maxima team: Maxima has a strong user community that communicates via mailing lists. Maxima developers are always available to respond, answering questions, and responding to bug reports.
SF: Have you all found that more frequent releases helps build up your community of users?
Maxima team: In recent years, Maxima followed a regular release schedule. This appears to have been appreciated by the majority of our users.
SF: What was the first big thing that happened for your project?
Maxima team: The first big thing happened decades ago, when Maxima became the first general purpose CAS that was released as Open Source.
SF: What helped make that happen?
Maxima team: Maxima would not exist without the dedication of Bill Schelter.
SF: What was the net result for that event?
Maxima team: The world’s first general-purpose Open Source CAS was born.
SF: What is the next big thing for Maxima?
Maxima team: No specific event is planned; our goal is to continue maintaining a CAS that can run reliably and efficiently on multiple platforms.
SF: How long do you think that will take?
Maxima team: It is an on-going effort.
SF: Do you have the resources you need to make that happen?
Maxima team: Yes and no. The people who contribute to Maxima are capable but they are volunteers who cannot work on this project full-time.
SF: If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently for Maxima?
Maxima team: Nothing, really since most of the critical design decisions were made long before Maxima was born as an Open Source project, back in the Macsyma days.
Maxima team: Maxima is in many ways a legacy project: we are not breaking new grounds here but maintaining an important legacy product that many of us also actively use in our research.
SF: Any reason you can’t do that now?
Maxima team: We are doing it right now.
SF: Is there anything else we should know?
Maxima team: Maxima is also available for Android mobile devices, and runs efficiently on smartphones and tablets.
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