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Using MathObjects

To use MathObjects in your own problems, you need to load the macro file:


which defines the commands you need to interact with MathObjects. Once you have done that, you can call the MathObjects functions to create formulas for you. The main call is Formula(), which takes a string and returns a parsed version of the string. For example:

    $f = Formula("x^2 + 3x + 1");

will set $f to a reference to the parsed version of the formula.

Working With Formulas

A formula has a number of methods that you can call. These include:


Evaluate the formula when x is 5. If $f has more variables than that, then you must provide additional values, as in


Tries to remove redundent items from your formula. For example, Formula("1x+0") returns "x". Reduce tries to factor out negatives and do some other adjustments as well. (There still needs to be more work done on this. What it does is correct, but not always smart, and there need to be many more situations covered.) All the reduction rules can be individually enabled or disabled using the Context()->reduction->set() method, and you can enable or disable individual rules using the reduce method itself. For example


would reduce $f but not perform the change from -x+5 to 5-x if that expression occurred in $f.


Replace x by the value 5 throughout the formula (you may want to reduce the result afterword, as this is not done automatically). Note that you can replace a variable by another formula, if you wish. To make this easier, substitute will apply Formula() to any string values automatically. E.g.,


returns <y-1> as a formula.


returns a string representation of the formula (should be equivalent to the original, though not necessarily identical to it).


returns a LaTeX representation of the formula. You can use this in BEGIN_TEXT...END_TEXT blocks as follows:

    Suppose \(f(x) = \{$f->TeX}\). ...

If you place Context()->texStrings before a BEGIN_TEXT...END_TEXT block, and Context()->normalStrings afterward, then using $f within the text will cause the TeX version to be inserted, rather than the string version. This makes it easier to generate well-formated output in your problems without having to produce a separate TeX form yourself.


returns a representation of the formula that could be evaluated by perl's eval() function.


returns a perl code block that can be called to evaluate the function. For example:

    $f = Formula('x^2 + 3')->perlFunction;
    $y = &$f(5);

will assign the value 28 to $y. You can also pass a function name to perlFunction to get a named function to call:

    Formula('x^2 + 3')->perlFunction('f');
    $y = f(5);

If the formula involves more than one variable, then the paramaters should be given in alphabetical order.

    Formula('x^2 + y')->perlFunction('f');
    $z = f(5,3);  # $z is 28.

Alternatively, you can tell the order for the parameters:

    Formula('x^2 + y')->perlFunction('f',['y','x']);
    $z = f(5,3); $ now $z is 14.

Combining Formulas

There is a second way to create formulas. Once you have a formula, you can create additional formulas simply by using perls' built-in operations and functions, which have been overloaded to handle formulas. For example,

    $x = Formula('x');
    $f = 3*x**2 + 2*$x - 1;

makes $f be a formula, and is equivalent to having done

    $f = Formula("3x^2 + 2x - 1");

This can be very convenient, but also has some pitfalls. First, you need to include * for multiplication, since perl doesn't do implied multiplication, and you must remember to use ** not ^. (If you use ^ on a MathObject, the library will remind you to use **. But if you use it on native Perl numbers, it will just compute the wrong answer silently.) Second, the precedences of the operators in perl are fixed, and so changes you make to the precedence table for the parser are not reflected in formulas produced in this way. (The reason ^ is not overloaded to do exponentiation is that the precedence of ^ is wrong for that in perl and can't be changed.) As long as you leave the default precedences, however, things should work as you expect.

Note that the standard functions, like sin, cos, etc, are overloaded to generate appropriate formulas when their values are formulas. For example,

    $x = Formula('x');
    $f = cos(3*$x + 1);

produces the same result as $f = Formula("cos(3x+1)"); and you can then go on to output its TeX form, etc.

Special Syntax

The MathObjects expression parser has support for some mathematical notation that is not available is some other parsers. For example, you can say |1+x| rather than abs(1+x) (though both are allowed), and even |1 - |x|| works.

Also, you can use sin^2(x) (or even sin^2 x) to get (sin(x))^2.

Finally, you can use sin^-1(x) to get arcsin(x).

There is an experimental set of operator precedences that make it possible to write sin 2x + 3 and get sin(2x) + 3. See examples/ for some details.

The Formula Types

The MathObjects library defines a wide range of data types, including real and complex numbers, infinity, points, vectors, matrices, arbitrary lists, intervals, unions of intervals, and predefined words. Each has a syntax for use within formulas, as described below:

These forms are what are used in the strings passed to Formula(), or when a student types them for an answer. If you want to create versions of these as part of the pg code for an answer, there are several ways to do it. One way is to use the Compute() command, which takes a string parses it and then evaluates the result (and in addition, sets the correct answer to be exactly the string that was passed to Compute(), so this makes it easy to show the correct answer in whatever format you desire). If the formula produces a vector, for example, the result will be a Vector constant that you can use in perl formulas by hand.

For example:

    $v = Compute("<1,1,0> >< <-1,4,-2>");

would compute the dot product of the two vectors and assign the resulting vector object to $v.

Another way to generate constants of the various types is to use the following routines. If their inputs are constant, they produce a constant of the appropriate type. If an input is a formula, they produce corresponding formula objects. If an input is a MathObject, it will be converted to the appropriate type, if possible (e.g., you can use Point($v) to coerce a vector $v to a Point MathObject). Finally, if the input is a string, it is first parsed and the result is converted to the appropriate class, if possible.


Creates a real number with "fuzzy" comparisons (so that 1.0000001 == Real(1) is true).


Creates the complex number a + b i

Infinity or -(Infinity)

Creates the positive and negative infinity objects.

Point(x1,...xn) or Point([x1,...,xn])

Produces the point (x1,...,xn).

Vector(x1,...,xn) or Vector([x1,...,xn])

Produces the vector <x1,...,xn>.

Matrix([a11,...,a1m],...,[am1,...,amn]) or Matrix([[a11,...,a1m],...,[am1,...,amn]])

Produces an n x m matrix.


Produces a list with the given elements.


Produces the interval (a,b], (the other types of end-points work as expected). Use Infinity and -(Infinity) for unbounded intervals.


Produces the set consisting of the given numbers. Set() produces the empty set.


Takes the union of the n intervals or sets (where I1 to In are Interval or Set objects).


Produces a string object for the given word (if it is a known word).

For example,

    $a = random(-5,5,1)
    $V = Vector($a,1-$a,$a**2+1);

produces a vector with some random coordinates.

Objects of these types also have TeX, string and perl methods, so you can use:


to produce a TeX version of the vector, just as you can with formulas.

There are several "constant" functions that generate common constant values. These include pi, i, j, k and Infininty. you can use these in perl expressions as though they were their actual values:

    $z = $a + $b * i;
    $v = $a*i + $b*j + $c*k;
    $I = Infinity;

Note that because of a peculiarity of perl, you need to use -(pi) or - pi (with a space) rather than -pi, and similarly for the other functions. Without this, you will get an error message about an ambiguity being resolved. (This is not a problem that occurs with strings passed to Formula() or Compute(), or in student answers, but only if you are writing expressions in perl directly. Note that since student answers are processed by the MathObjects string parser, not perl directly, they can write -pi without problems.)

Specifying the Context

You may have noticed that i was used in two different ways in the examples above. In the first example, it was treated as a complex number and the second as a coordinate unit vector. To control which interpretation is used, you specify a parser context.

The context controls what operations and functions are defined in the parser, what variables and constants to allow, how to interpret various paretheses, and so on. Changing the context can completely change the way a formula is interpreted.

There are several predefined contexts: Numeric, Complex, Point, Vector, Vector2D, Interval, Matrix, and Full. A numbmer of specialized contexts are defined in files in the pg/macros directory (e.g., for scientific notation, currency values, chemical reactions, and so on). To select a context, use the Context() function, e.g.


selects the numeric context, where i, j, and k have no special meaning, points and vectors can't be used, and the only predefined variable is x.

On the other hand, Context("Vector") makes i, j, and k represent the unit coordinate vectors, and defines variables x, y and z, while Context("Vector2D") has i and j (but no k) as vectors in 2D.

Context("Interval") is like numeric context, but it also defines the parentheses so that they will form intervals (rather than points or lists). Context("Matrix") defined brackets so that they produce matrices, so students can type matrices directly.

Once you have selected a context, you can modify it to suit the particular needs of your problem. The command

    $context = Context();

gets you a reference to the current context object (you can also use something like

    $context = Context("Numeric");

to set the context and get its reference at the same time). Once you have this reference, you can call the Context methods to change values in the context. Some of the more common actions are described here.

To add a variable, use, for example,


To delete any existing variables and replace them with new ones, use


To remove a variable, use


To get the names of the defind variables, use

    @names = $context->variables->names;

Similarly, you can add a named constant via


and can change, remove or list the constants via methods like those used for variables above. The command

    $M = $constant->constants->get('M');

will return the value of the consant M. (See the pg/lib/Value/Context/ file for more information on the methods you can call for the various types of context data.)

To add new predefined words (like NONE and DNE), use something like


Note that strings are case-insensitive by default, but you can force them to be case-sensitive:


You can also create strings that mean the same thing as other strings (and will be counted as equal):

        T => {alias=>'TRUE'},
        F => {alias=>'FALSE'},

so that either TRUE or T (upper- or lowercase) will be interpreted as TRUE.

There are a number of values stored in the context that control things like the tolerance used when comparing numbers, and so on. You control these via commands like:


For example,


will cause the output of all vectors to be written in ijk format rather than <...> format.

Finally, you can add or modify the operators and functions that are available in the parser via calls to $context->operators and $context->functions. See the files in pg/docs/MathObjects/extensions for examples of how to do this.

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