Professional Grade Typesetting with LaTeX / TeX

(Mathematical Toolset Series: TeX & LaTeX, Part 1 of 3)

If symbols, formulas, and equations comprise a large portion of your professional communication, then becoming familiar with the LaTeX / TeX platform should be high on your to-do list. With the right tools and a little practice, the relative ease of creating beautiful documents with TeX may mean that you soon leave your favorite Office suite in favor of TeX for your technical writing.

This article introduces the LaTeX / TeX platform, illustrates its capabilities, and highlights the key differences between using TeX for document preparation and more commonly used word processing systems.

For those that like to know the human side of the tools they use, a little history of TeX, the philosophy motivating its development, and something about its legendary creator, is included.

This is Part 1 in a series of three articles (Part 2, Part 3) intended to give you all that you’ll need to begin working with LaTeX / TeX on Windows, using free, open-source software.

TeX Appeal

LaTeX, spoken “lay-tech” or “lah-tech”, is a professional document preparation system built atop TeX, spoken “tech”. The name, TeX, is from the Greek, technos, meaning craft, or technology. Together LaTeX and TeX form a powerful typesetting platform that produces “camera-ready” print with a minimum of fuss, even for difficult material such as mathematics. Using TeX means that you can communicate complex ideas in an aesthetically pleasing form, which means your ideas are more likely to be read, understood, and hopefully absorbed.

Here, for example, is what you would get after typesetting the binomial formula in LaTeX.

\displaystyle (a + b)^n = \sum_{k=0}^n \binom{n}{k} a^k b^{n-k}.

The LaTeX markup creating this, shown below, is simple, readable, and, most importantly, has the advantage of being fully specified in text instead of mouse-clicks:

$(a + b)^n = \sum_{k=0}^n \binom{n}{k} a^k b^{n-k}$

To really get a feel for the quality of automatic typesetting that TeX produces, look at a few articles created in LaTeX:

This is how an article looks that was created in LaTeX and contains mostly words:
Mathematics in Pre-History (PDF)

And here is an article, created in LaTeX, having complicated formulas, equations, images, and code listings:
Finite Summations of Integer Powers x^p, PART THREE (PDF)

Download these and browse through their formatting and display. Notice the automatic typesetting details such as kerning (spacing between letters), and subtle differences in how adjoining letters look: \mbox{ff} vs. ff, for example. These, and a host of typesetting subtleties are what distinguishes professionally typeset camera-ready copy from, for example, a Microsoft Word document turned into a PDF. The effort that would be required to manually typeset a similar looking article in Microsoft Word or Sun’s Open Writer would be prohibitive, and not least because of the in-depth knowledge required akin to that of a professional typesetter. By now, if you are not already using LaTeX / TeX, you are hopefully persuaded to give it a try. (If not, here are 10 further reasons to consider.)

“WYSIWYG” vs. the TeX Way — a Philosophical Difference

“WYSIWYG” is an acronymn for “What You See is What You Get”, and represents the idea that the writer is in charge of every aspect of the typography and layout of his product. LaTeX / TeX adopts the opposite point of view, namely that the competence of most writers is highest in the area of creating content, and diminishes as the aesthetic standard for beautifully laid out documents is raised. Thus, the driving idea behind the creation of TeX is that if a computer can be programmed to perform typesetting and layout with the same aesthetic sense of a master typesetter, then most writers would gladly relinquish the responsibility of having to manually make their work look beautiful.

Thus, the heart of the difference between LaTeX/TeX and the so-called “WYSIWYG” programs such the Microsoft, Corel, and Sun Office suites, originates in this philosophical view of the appropriate division of responsibility between writer and typesetter. But this simple philosophical difference results in substantial practical differences, and document preparation platforms that are substantially different in usability, suitability for various writing activities, and quality of the finished product.

The good news is that with the right tools and a little practice, creating documents using LaTeX is relatively easy. And once you get used to the beautiful look of TeX-ed documents, you’ll soon find it onerous to go back to the usual “WYSIWYG” programs such as the Microsoft, Corel, and Sun Office suites, among others, and let TeX do a professional job typesetting for you.

Understanding the Platform: Engine vs. Wrapper

The key to understanding the LaTeX / TeX platform is to recognize the different roles that each of the two software systems plays. TeX is the master typesetting engine that makes it all possible. TeX is versatile and powerful, but complex, with many settings, switches, and configurations possible. Most users don’t compose their documents directly in TeX. So although TeX is the typesetting engine, it is actually LaTeX that you will be using.

LaTeX is wrapper software that encapsulates the powerful functionality of TeX but presents to the user a friendly interface for getting on with the business of document preparation. All of the capability of TeX is still present, but with defaults that are intelligently chosen so that you can proceed out of the box and need only dig deeper when you wish to make major changes to layout or formatting.

Finally, there is the optional, but desirable graphical environment within which most users, especially new users, will actually compose their documents. This provides a pleasant, mouse-enabled method for selecting styles, mathematical and symbolic objects, and the markup elements that go into specifying a TeX document. The markups are descriptive — they inform the typesetting system of your intent. Unlike the WYSIWGY programs, they do not prescribe how to perform the layout. That decision is left to the master typesetter — TeX.

The Creation and Impact of TeX

The significance of TeX and, through it, Knuth’s impact on the field of technical publishing, is hard to overstate. A little background helps put in context the tremendous affection that technical users have both for TeX and for its creater, the legendary Stanford mathematician and computer scientist, Don Knuth.

TeX was not created by a company or corporation. It was designed and created by Knuth during a 10 year labor of love, born out of both necessity and the desire for aesthetic and technical perfection. Remember, this was before Microsft and Windows as we know them, before the ubiquitous world wide web, and before Google search, a time when technical materials were still often written by hand, or typed on a typewriter, with hand written symbols to supplement the missing typography. Once created, TeX and all of its attendant technology were given for free to the user community. LaTeX was created, similarly, by the mathematician and computer scientist Leslie Lamport, to ease document preparation, and was also given away for free to the community. Together TeX and LaTeX (along with Adobe’s Postscript) revolutionized publishing and brought the tools for quality communication out of the hands of specialists and into the technical community itself.

Today, LaTeX / TeX is the de facto platform of choice for technical communications. In fact,

at least in mathematics, computer science, and physics, the adoption of TeX has been so universal that failure to use it is now a reliable crackpot indicator. (Scott Aaronson, Computer Scientist)

To both Knuth and Lamport are owed a tremendous debt of gratitude by the hundreds of thousands of scientists and authors who use the software every day for their research publications, textbook writing, and book writing. If the author of every document generated freely using TeX were to give Knuth a moment of silence for good karma, he would likely have enough to last several lifetimes. For what it’s worth, let me here add mine!

This is the first in a series of three articles intended to give you all that you’ll need to begin working with LaTeX / TeX on Windows, using free, open-source software.

Articles two and three get you set up and on your way.

>> Continue reading: Part 2: Setting up a TeX / LaTeX Platform on Windows with Open Source Tools

>> Continue reading: Part 3: Thinking Modular in TeX

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