Anyone who has worked with programs such as Linux, Firefox, and Open Office is familiar with the concept of open-source software. Essentially, open-source software distributes programs and all of the underlying code for free. It's an interesting concept that has become quite popular in the engineering world but, until now, is unheard of in mathematics circles. That may all soon change, however, thanks to the dedicated efforts of a University of Washington mathematician named William Stein and a program he has been working on called Sage.

According to Stein, the idea for what would evolve into Sage first occurred to him in 2005 when he was an assistant professor at Harvard University. The problem wasn't a lack of mathematics software; in fact, there were a number of very sophisticated mathematics programs on the market. The problem was their cost. Licensing fees put most available programs well out of reach of the average user and those without corporate backing. Another problem with most commercial programs is that they rarely reveal how the calculations are performed, meaning other mathematicians can't study them to see how a computer-based calculation achieves its result.

So Stein set out to remedy the situation. For about a year and a half, he worked feverishly all by himself to develop a prototype. Once word got out about what he was doing, offers of help began flooding in. Over the last three years, more than 100 mathematicians from around the world have worked with Stein to build a user-friendly tool that combines powerful number-crunching capability with things like collaborative online worksheets. The result is a program that can do anything from mapping a 12-dimensional object to calculating rainfall patterns under global warming.

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