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Mighty hard-sums special function toolset goes online

Keys to the universe offered free by US gov

US federal boffins are chuffed as ninepence to announce that they have transformed their "most widely cited publication of all time" - a huge handbook/toolkit of hard sums - into an online service.

The work in question is the mighty Handbook of Mathematical Functions from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), first issued in 1964. The original handbook sold more than a million copies, and it is still referenced by 1600 publications a year on average.

The book is basically a toolkit of mathematical special functions used by scientists, real hard-sums engineers (as opposed to MCSEs), statisticians and indeed anyone else who needs to apply the tremendous power of sums to do their work.

To accompany the latest paper edition of the Handbook, NIST is also offering a free Web toolset called the Digital Library of Mathematical Functions (DLMF), here.

According to NIST's announcement:

Special functions appear whenever natural phenomena are studied, engineering problems are formulated, and computer simulations are performed. They also crop up in statistics, financial models, and economic analysis.

The online DLMF, freely available on the Web, includes visual aids that provide qualitative information on the behavior of mathematical functions, such as interactive tools for rotating and zooming in on three-dimensional representations. These visualizations can be explored with free browsers and plugins for PC, Mac and Linux systems.

Confused about the symbols in an equation? Just click on the symbol to be led to its definition. The DLMF also provides references to or hints for the proofs of all mathematical statements, offers advice on methods for computing mathematical functions, and provides active links to available software and references. It also features a powerful search engine.

"This is a much more complete package for the user," says Dan Lozier of NIST, one of the project's editors. "We anticipate the DLMF to be a useful resource for everyone who has benefited from the 1964 publication, and expect that it will find new audiences among biologists, data security specialists, and every other branch of science that employs computer-based models."

For anyone who needs the power of maths but doesn't care for that there internet malarkey, the new edition of the Handbook will also appear as a hefty 967-page dead tree package (ISBN 9780521192255, from the Cambridge University Press). ®

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