History of Numerical Analysis

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Gaston Gonnet

Oral History (pdf)

Interviewer: Thomas Haigh

Born in Uruguay, Gonnet was first exposed to computers while working for IBM in Montevideo as a young man. This led him to a position at the university computer center and in turn to an undergraduate degree in computer science in 1973. In 1974, he left for graduate study at the University of Waterloo, earning an M.Sc. and a Ph.D. under the supervision of Alan George. After one year teaching in Rio de Janeiro he returned to Waterloo, as a faculty member.

In 1980, Gonnet began work with a group including Morven Gentleman and Keith Geddes to produce an efficient interactive computer algebra system able to work well on smaller computers: Maple. Gonnet discusses in great detail the goals and organization of the Maple project, its technical characteristics, the Maple language and kernel, the Maple library, sources of funding, the contributions of the various team members, and the evolution of the system over time. He compares the resulting system to MACSYMA, Mathematica, Reduce, Scratchpad and other systems. Gonnet also examines the licensing and distribution of Maple and the project’s relations to its users. Maple was initially used for teaching purposes within the university, but soon found users in other institutions. From 1984, distribution was handled by Watcom, a company associated with the university, and in 1988, Gonnet and Geddes created a new company, Waterloo Maple Software, Inc. to further commercialize Maple. Maple established itself as the leading commercial computer algebra system. However, during the mid-1990s the company ran into trouble and disagreements with his colleagues caused Gonnet to withdraw from managerial involvement. Since then, he feels that Maple has lost its battle with Mathematica. Gonnet also discusses Maple’s relation to Matlab and its creator, Cleve Moler.

Gonnet continued to work in a number of areas of computer science, including analysis of algorithms. In 1990, Gonnet moved from Waterloo to ETH in Switzerland. Among his projects since then have been Darwin, a bioinformatics system for the manipulation of genetic data, and leadership of the OpenMath project to produce a standard representation for mathematical objects.

Key words:  mathematical software, symbolic computation, computer algebra, MAPLE, MACSYMA, Mathematica, Reduce, Scratchpad, MATLAB, Darwin, OpenMath project

Funding Agency: 

Time frame: 1970's, 1980's, 1990's

People:  Alan George, Frank Tompa, Ian Munro, Morven Gentleman, Keith Geddes, Cleve Moler, Gene Golub,  Donald Knuth, William (Velvel) Kahan, Walter Gander

Location: University of Waterloo, IBM (Montevideo), ETH Switzerland

Citation: Gaston Gonnet Oral history interview by Thomas Haigh, 16 - 18 March, 2005, Zurich, Switzerland. Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, Philadelphia, PA


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