Issues in defining an equations representation standard
RFC 1003

Document Type RFC - Unknown (March 1987; No errata)
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Network Working Group                                          Alan Katz
Request for Comments: 1003                                       USC/ISI
                                                              March 1987

        Issues in Defining an Equations Representation Standard

Status of This Memo

    This memo is intended to identify and explore issues in defining a
    standard for the exchange of mathematical equations.  No attempt is
    made at a complete definition and more questions are asked than are
    answered.  Questions about the user interface are only addressed to
    the extent that they affect interchange issues.  Comments are
    welcome.  Distribution of this memo is unlimited.

I.  Introduction

    Since the early days of the Arpanet, electronic mail has been in
    wide use and many regard it as an essential tool.  Numerous mailing
    lists and newsgroups have sprung up over the years, allowing large
    numbers of people all over the world to participate remotely in
    discussions on a variety of topics.  More recently, multimedia mail
    systems have been developed which allow users to not only send and
    receive text messages, but also those containing voice, bitmaps,
    graphics, and other electronic media.

    Most of us in the Internet community take electronic mail for
    granted, but for the rest of the world, it is a brand new
    capability.  Many are not convinced that electronic mail will be
    useful for them and may also feel it is just an infinite time sink
    (as we all know, this is actually true).  In particular, most
    scientists (apart from computer scientists) do not yet use, or are
    just beginning to use, electronic mail.

    The current NSF supercomputer initiative may change this.  Its
    primary purpose is to provide remote supercomputer access to a much
    greater number of scientists across the country.  However, doing
    this will involve the interconnection of many university-wide
    networks to NSF supercomputer sites and therefore to the NSF
    backbone network.  Thus, in the very near future we will have a
    large number of scientists in the country suddenly able to
    communicate via electronic mail.

    Generally, text-only mail has sufficed up until now.  One can dream
    of the day (not so far in the future) when everyone will have
    bitmapped display workstations with multimedia mail systems, but we
    can get by without it for now.  I believe, however, that the new NSF
    user community will find one other capability almost essential in
    making electronic mail useful to them, and that is the ability to

Katz                                                            [Page 1]
RFC 1003                                                      March 1987

    include equations in messages.

    A glance through any scientific journal will demonstrate the
    importance of equations in scientific communication.  Indeed, papers
    in some fields seem to contain more mathematics than English.  It is
    hard to imagine that when people in these fields are connected into
    an electronic mail community they will be satisfied with a mail
    system which doesn't allow equations.  Indeed, with the advent of
    the NSF's Experimental Research in Electronic Submission (EXPRESS)
    project, scientists will begin submitting manuscripts and project
    proposals directly through electronic mail and the ability to handle
    equations will be essential.

    Currently, there exists no standard for the representation of
    equations.  In fact, there is not even agreement on what it is that
    ought to be represented.  Users of particular equation systems (such
    as LaTex or EQN) sometimes advocate just including source files of
    that system in messages, but this may not be a good long-term
    solution.  With the new NSF community coming on line in the near
    future, I feel the time is now right to try to define a standard
    which will meet the present and future needs of the user community.

    Such a standard should allow the interchange of equations via
    electronic mail as well as be compatible with as many existing
    systems as possible.  It should be as general as possible, but still
    efficiently represent those aspects of equations which are most
    commonly used.  One point to be kept in mind is that most equations
    typesetting is currently being done by secretaries and professional
    typesetters who do not know what the equations mean, only what they
    look like.  Although this is mainly a user interface consideration,
    any proposed standard must not require the user to understand an
    equation in order to type it in.  We are not interested here in
    representing mathematics, only displayed equations.

    In this memo, I will try to raise issues that will need to be
    considered in defining such a standard and to get a handle on what
    it is that needs to be represented.  Hopefully, this  will form the
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