Originally posted on Casting Out Nines:
Over the weekend a minor smack-talk session opened up on Twitter between Maria Andersen and about half a dozen other math people about MathType versus $latex \LaTeX$. Maria is on record as being pro-MathType and yesterday she claimed that $latex \LaTeX$ is “not intuitive to learn”. I warned her that a pro-$latex \LaTeX$ blog post was in the offing with those remarks, and so it comes to this. $latex \LaTeX$ is accessible enough that every math teacher and every student in a math class at or above Calculus can (and many should) learn $latex \LaTeX$ and use it for their work. I have been using $latex \LaTeX$ for 15 years now and have been teaching it to our sophomore math majors for five years. I can tell you that students can learn it, and learn to love it.
Why use $latex \LaTeX$ when MathType is already out there, bundled with MS Word and other office programs, tempting us with its pretty point-and-click interface? Five reasons.
- $latex \LaTeX$ looks better. Seriously. MathType is getting better at visual appeal — it doesn’t look appalling any more — but nothing beats $latex \LaTeX$ for refinement and polish.
- $latex \LaTeX$ is the mathematical typesetting standard in all technical disciplines and in many related fields. Most, if not all, major publications in math, computer science, engineering, and physics use $latex \LaTeX$ as the preferred typesetting system. arXiv prefers $latex \LaTeX$ over all other formats.
- $latex \LaTeX$ is becoming a standard elsewhere, especially on the web. Last year, Google Documents added an equation editor that is basically a stripped-down $latex \LaTeX$ editor with a point-and-click interface. The wildly popular online presentation tool Prezi has said that $latex \LaTeX$ integration is coming. WordPress.com blogs like Casting Out Nines can do $latex \LaTeX$, and so can Wikispaces and several other web services. Online $latex \LaTeX$ typesetters abound, and more are popping up. The web likes open standards, and since MathML is all but impossible to use, $latex \LaTeX$ fills a gaping need for free, open-source mathematical typesetting. Which brings me to the next point:
- $latex \LaTeX$ is free. Free as in beer and free as in freedom. You can download it right now for just about any operating system imaginable, and have the full strength of the system available to you at no cost. And this is a system that has been around for 40 years (if you count TeX) and has millions of users, many of whom actively contribute to the further development of the system by writing specialized packages and macros. This is in stark contrast to MathType, which is proprietary and closed, and although you get the “Lite” version bundled in with office software, the full version will set you back at least $37.
- $latex \LaTeX$ is what you make it. You can use $latex \LaTeX$ with a point-and-click IDE, or you can type everything out by hand with a text editor and compile from the command line, or anything in between. You can tinker with the low-level creation of fonts or just quickly type out a letter. It’s up to the user. Other proprietary programs force a menu-driven point-and-click approach upon you, which you may like but may not like.
Others may add to these in the comments. But if $latex \LaTeX$ is so great, how come nobody ever seems to learn it until graduate school? I’m not sure, but it’s not because $latex \LaTeX$ is counterintuitive. It’s not totally obvious, either, but with a little guidance, $latex \LaTeX$ can make perfect sense even to high school students. If you’re a math or science teacher, make it a project to learn $latex \LaTeX$ yourself and start using it in your classes, then teach it to your students. Here are five ways to make that a painless process.