Raspberry Pi and Wolfram: a must-have for every child

Raspberry Pi

Jon Honeyball says the combination of Raspberry Pi and Wolfram Language is a boon for education

If you have a Raspberry Pi, you can now download the free Wolfram Language runtime – and even a full copy of Mathematica – to run on it.

Wolfram is a curious company. Those who "get it" become passionate believers, whereas those who think that the world of calculation starts and ends with Excel generally shrug, utter a "meh!" and walk on by. Probably because they never took maths at school or university, and preferred history of art or philosophy to anything useful. Their loss.

Some people are put off by the almost irrepressible enthusiasm of Stephen Wolfram, the founder, and say that his ego appears to have no finite bounds. I shrug and say "so what?" He’s clearly built an incredibly successful product and platform that employs hundreds of people around the world. His product is hugely influential and used in all kinds of unexpected places (did I mention history of art and philosophy?).

The Pi deserves to be huge, and it should be mandatory for every schoolchild to have one

Some years ago, I wrote about Wolfram’s Alpha scientific search engine, and how I thought it would become huge. It has: you may not use it every day; you may not even know that you’re using it; but it’s there, and I challenge you to find anything comparable from any other software company. The world is a better place for it.

Now the company has started talking publicly about the Wolfram Language, the underlying platform for all of its engines from Alpha to Mathematica. Wolfram has been doing incredible work with this language, even offering a fully web-based HTML5 version of Mathematica. If ever proof were required that you can build rich applications inside a web browser, this is it. It cruelly highlights the poor quality of the HTML ports of tools such as Microsoft Excel and Word (their web versions may be okay, often even useful, but they’re hampered by their history).

Wolfram Language runs on any hardware, from Raspberry Pi to supercomputer cluster, either locally or in the cloud – you choose. On the Pi, you can do this for free, on a computer board the size of a playing card, for less than £30. Alright, so you need to add a mains power supply, and maybe a case, but this is commodity computing of a size, cheapness and power we have never witnessed before. No wonder it’s becoming hugely influential and is selling like hot cakes.

Getting my Pi up and running was simple, and within a few minutes I had a full GUI running on my lounge TV set. A few minutes more and I had a full Mathematica workbook displayed on there, too. Performance isn’t exactly scorching, reminiscent of a computer from the late 1990s, but – and this is most important – it’s fast enough.

Actually, Wolfram claims its performance on the Pi is comparable to – maybe even faster than – the NeXT cubes on which Mathematica first shipped. However, the NeXT was a multi-thousand-dollar workstation, while the Raspberry Pi fits in your pocket (almost in your wallet), and costs less than a decent round of drinks down the pub.

The Pi deserves to be huge, and it should be mandatory for every schoolchild to have one. Looking back at the history of UK educational computing, it started when I was at school with feeble 8-bit micros and painful programming languages; it then moved on to the hugely influential wave of the BBC Micro; and thereafter into the world of Wintel PCs. After a while, the educational focus shifted toward acquiring Microsoft Office skills. Now, everyone can do that: everyone has a smartphone.

The Pi takes computing back to the hobbyist level. With Mathematica and the Wolfram Language, it lets you build ridiculously effective knowledge-driven computational devices for peanuts. This is what we should be teaching our children today. I can’t praise this enough.

What’s galling, of course, is that there’s nothing here that couldn’t have been delivered by Microsoft Research. However, Ballmer would have demanded it be an expensive licence, a billion-dollar division, and that we buy it from a favoured hardware partner. Pi shows what can be done for next to nothing, and Wolfram takes it to the next level. Buy one.