A computer symbolic algebra system.


I’m all about open-source tools, as a rule. Mathematica is not that. But the fact remains that the best table of integrals that exists is Mathematica, that emergent epiphenomenon of the cellular automaton that implements Stephen Wolfram’s mind. I should probably work out what else it does, while I have their seductively cheap student-license edition chugging away. begrudging contested access to a small number of corporate licenses.


  • Magickal calculus engine. It gives you all the integrals you can eat, but at great cost to your soul.
  • Built-in latex editor


  • It’s a weird language, with horrible default scoping (Cross-document namespace pollution? Really?)
  • Even as probably the most popular computer algebra system, just not that popular. Ergo, weak community.

Where on earth is the download button?

One of the quirks of Mathematica is that there is no way, at least that I can find, to go from the front page to the place where I actually download the software. is where the licensed copy lives.


See the master list: What are the most common pitfalls awaiting new users?.

One that has bitten me:

  • {{1,2,4}} is a \(1 \times 3\) matrix or a row vector;
  • {{1},{2},{4}} is a \(3 \mathrm{x} 1\) matrix or a column vector;
  • {1,2,4} is a vector but not a matrix. Whether it is a row or column vector depends on the context in a confusing and opaque way that you should not rely upon.


The substitution operator is /. which is terrible to search for. The help easiest to find under the alias ReplaceAll.

{x, x^2, y, z} /. x -> 1
{x, x^2, y, z} /. {x -> 1,y ->2, z->x}


The keywords are Postfix, Sequence, Apply, and maybe Right Composition and infix notation. It is worth looking at the language syntax to find these handy tricks.


Comments syntax:

(* stuff *)

This is not well documented presumably because they because prefer us to use the literate programming system, where some cells can be text cells; That is fine but sometime I need inline comments.

Typing symbols

Typing symbols is easy; just use the combination of Esc and autocomplete.

Non-commutative algebra

Generic non-commutative operator algebra is not well-done in basic Mathematica, and even the more specialised case of matrices is not great. AFAICt there are no matrices of arbitrary size.

There is an add-on, NCAlgebra (source) which is a powerful non-commutative algebra system, including generic treatment of matrix derivatives, generic matrix decompositions, matrix polynomials, semi-definite programming and other useful stuff. Their recommended install is

Import["", CharacterEncoding -> "UTF8"];


Most tutorials have you executing everything in promiscuous global scope. Since I am not a heavy Mathematica user, half my time is spent debugging problems with stale definitions and weird scope behaviour. A large part of what remains is worrying about when code is executed. You can get a local scope with Block.

Multiple clashing function definitions will hang around silently conflicting with one another; use ClearAll to remove all the definitions of a term to avoid this. As David Reiss points out, if I define


then when I execute g[2] I get "cheese" and not 4. This is also about evaluation time — for more on that see below.

The easiest way to get a fresh start for some overloaded name, as far as I can see, is:


Function wrangling and differential equations

The confusing terminology is pure functions.

dsaad[t_] = Q[t] /. First @ DSolve[{Q''[t] + 40 Q'[t] + 625 Q[t] == 100*Cos[10*t],
  Q[0] == 0, Q'[0] == 0}, Q, t]

Here are some worked examples of the nuts and bolts of this: Function output from DSolve, How to define a function based on the output of DSolve?.

Building libraries/packages

🤷 But see, for example, the NCAlgebra package docs for some pitfalls.

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