As Stephen Wolfram, founder of Wolfram Research, proved in his recent book
A New Kind of Science
, Wolfram’s Mathematica application can be used for profound investigations of the complexities of nature. But if your job description does not include “overhauling the conceptual basis of physics itself,” maybe the program you need is CalculationCenter. It’s ideal for educators and students, and it’s an excellent choice for most business and technical users.
The new version, CalculationCenter 2, expands the program’s library of functions to include the most-useful distributions for statistics, makes it simple to post equations to the Web, and adds a few new import file formats (AutoCAD’s DXF, for example).
Filling In the Blanks
Making the power of the Mathematica kernel (the part of the program that actually does the calculations) easily accessible to mere mortals is the goal of CalculationCenter 2. Like the first version (mmmm; Reviews, July 2001), it does this mainly through two helpful features.
First, it provides templates (called Instant Calculators) that cover 95 percent of real-world science and engineering problems. Using these templates spares you programming chores and syntax struggles — just plug in a few values from your problem, and you get an instant answer. Second, the program provides a “grammar checker” for dealing with the necessarily nitpicky requirements of statements that are to be fed to the Mathematica kernel.
When you extend, modify, or write a formula from scratch in CalculationCenter 2, the program instantly advises you of any syntax corrections your work needs. Note also that every function automatically works in symbolic mode (calculating with variables, rather than numbers alone), making it easy to generate useful formulas rather than just onetime answers.
Down to Business
The big new computational feature in CalculationCenter 2 is the addition of about a dozen common statistical distribution functions, including Poisson, binomial, and normal. The point of this addition is to increase the program’s appeal to Microsoft Excel users who’d like to convert their business models to a much faster computing engine.
When translating an Excel business model, CalculationCenter 2 makes it relatively easy to treat every variable as a probability distribution rather than a single value, a great step up from the last version in matching results to reality. As a basic example, the model can represent next year’s third-quarter sales as a range of possible values, a big improvement on a single-number possible value.
As a slightly more complex example, consider retirement investing. Is it realistic to project the results of an average return of 10 percent over 20 years by simply compounding the 10 percent 20 times? If you make an average of 10 percent from 20 possible values ranging around 10 as the mean, and use these values as the year-by-year returns, you will find a huge range of 20-year results, corresponding to many possible outcomes for such an investment plan.
Of course, you can formulate the more realistic model in Excel, but you can produce a faster and more flexible version, including comprehensive graphical representations of possible results, in CalculationCenter 2. All the new probability functions have Instant Calculators at the ready, and the expanded Help for these functions includes prepared examples you can apply right away to real-world business problems.
Version 2 also includes special Help topics for Excel users (there’s also help for MathCAD users) and offers convenient import of Excel work, such as individual formulas, spreadsheet data tables, and spreadsheets saved in CSV format. And Calculation Center 2 offers graphical help in the form of inequality plots, allowing visual display of regions where variables meet certain conditions.
Share and Share Alike
CalculationCenter 2 maintains the previous version’s ability to save results in Mathematica-format notebooks (.nb files), as well as its word-processing functionality. The Controller window’s Characters button puts menu options at your fingertips, giving you immediate access to palettes of math symbols, Greek letters, and dozens of other special characters. It’s a simple business in CalculationCenter 2 to compose a short document full of typeset-quality equations for print output. However, one of our few complaints about the program is that between the Controller window and the other windows, screens get crowded on smaller monitors (older iMacs with 15-inch CRT displays being the prime example).
By introducing support for MathML 2.0, the math-representation standard based on XML, version 2 also simplifies sharing of information. The practical implication of this is that you can compose a document in real math notation, including figures that will be translated as GIFs, and post it all to a Web page, readable by anyone who’s installed the (free) MathML plug-in in his or her Web browser. And anyone with CalculationCenter or Mathematica can reuse your equations via the cut-and-paste command. Happily, this ends a 500-year tradition of laboriously copying math work from print or manuscript sources.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Whether you’re an educator or a businessperson, CalculationCenter 2 has enough power to solve any problem you’ll find in either a textbook or a real-world situation, and it will give you usable results within 15 minutes of installation.