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

Posted on 1 Apr 2014 at 10:23

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.

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User comments

Cloud Cuckoo Land

Sorry Jon, but you've lost your grip. Wouldn't it be better to make better use of what schools already have - PCs, although maybe a little old? Why not teach via what they already have, hopefully via something a little easier than Wolfram Language is?

By ArtissTheGeek on 1 Apr 2014

@ArtissTheGreek

Every child does need one of these RPi. Basically Computing in schools has become, just office applications. Teaching children to program is a major life skill, and involved logic, problem solving and helps fire the imagination.

I was lucky enough at school that we did pascal, which was awesome and I kept it up for several years after leaving school. Putting one of these in every childs hand will help bolster the dwindling ranks of programmers we have in this country.

By Andrew76 on 1 Apr 2014

A nation of spods? Please no!

"Probably because they never took maths at school or university, and preferred history of art or philosophy to anything useful. Their loss." - This is the kind of comment, at the top of an article, that should put people off. The supercilious tone is in direct contradiction to the fact that children *don't* want to be programmers in the main.
I happen to think we should be encouraging children to get out from behind their screens and experience more of the world, rather than becoming glued to a view of the world mediated through the bits and bytes so beloved of the spods. The incredible story of the Raspberry Pi is partly down to middle aged dads buying them droves for their young (mostly) male children, in a bout of vicarious spoddiness for their thankfully un-spoddy children, who tend to prefer PS4/XB game, watching TV, running around, camping, fishing for tadpoles, singing, writing, drawing, painting, acting, in fact more or less anything, to sitting in front of an computer iterating their code.
By all means champion the Pi, and Wolfram - both amazing things; but don't make the lazy assumption that the people that don't "get it" are somehow lacking ("their loss"). Never mind the fact that maths is meaningless without philosophy or art (what is a number, exactly? - tell me without using language ...) , such a casual dismissal betrays what the writer lacks here, namely perspective.

By oblomov on 1 Apr 2014

I "get it", but...

I understand Mathematica - it is effortlessly better than Excel - but it has something of a learning curve. As with most things, once you've got a basic understanding you can use the documentation to figure other things out. It is not so clear if this is something that all children need.

By FrancisKing on 1 Apr 2014

Missing paragraph(s)

Where's the bit where Jon explains how by buying 20,000 Pi's with his Black Amex and collecting three cereal box tops he got his weekly First Class round-the-world flight for 26 grand less than usual?

It's not enough for me to know Jon is 'extremely important', 'cash, asset, time and sexual partner rich' and likes to own 'too many Macs'. I want numbers.

By turt66 on 1 Apr 2014

@Andrew76

You didn't read what I wrote. Learning a language isn't the issue - I'm simply suggesting that it can be done on the equipment that they have. As @turt66 has stated, who's going to pay for 20,000 Pis when schools are already equipped with PCs? And as @FrancisKing has said the Wolfram Language has a steep learning curve - it would surely be better to teach them with some easier. Isn't that how people (myself included) started back in the 80s?

By ArtissTheGeek on 2 Apr 2014

Absolutely agree with Jon

I bought two my children. They might left without interest but it cost me less than a toy that would be thrown away after a week or more. But, what if they continue their interest in RPi (as we witnessed before ZX spectrum or C64 in the era of PC and Mac!). That is absolutelty worth trying...

By HopeLESS on 4 Apr 2014

Supercillious indeed!

@oblomov - very well put!

I'm a reasonably intelligent bloke and I've got a decent range of interests. I have a tendency to be shocked\disappointed when others don't share my enthusiasms. "Their loss"?
From my perspective well, yes it is, but my failure to appreciate their love of Wagner is surely mine?

And returning to the 2nd paragraph in Mr H's piece, who's to say what's useful? Utility, like meaning, exists in a context.

By wittgenfrog on 7 Apr 2014

Wolfram and Pi

A curious mix of two different subjects. The Pi works very well without Wolfram; students and professionals make interesting Pi based system using Python or perhaps Alice!. I am sure some of these clever people will also use Wolfram or Mathematica on Pi and will thank Dr. Wolfram for his generosity. But in my view this article is not 'useful' and is not 'my loss'

By pksengupta on 18 Apr 2014

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Jon Honeyball

Jon Honeyball

Jon is one of the UK's most respected IT journalists and a contributing editor to PC Pro since it launched in 1994. He specialises in Microsoft technologies, including client/server and office automation applications.

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