Math Games

The Quantian Distribution

Ed Pegg Jr., April 26, 2004

I wasn't told of TeX in college. Since most published mathematical papers use TeX, that knowledge would have helped.  Various geniuses created documents with TeX.  All the successful people I know use TeX.  So, I had to learn it.  A history of TeX is at the TeX users group. TeX (which rhymes with blecch) was invented by Donald Knuth, who has the world's most fascinating faculty page.

One difficulty with TeX is getting it.  On Windows, I obtained MiKTeX first, then WinEdt as the front end. This took me a few days due to the size of all the packages, and some amount of floundering around.  WinEdt isn't free, so be aware of that, but I feel it is well worth its price. 

Another handy program I was slow to find was Ghostview.  On a lot of faculty pages, or on arxiv, papers are in PS (postscript) format.

Many programs deserved recommendation in a column (cygwin, to name one), but I worried about the amount of time required for people to download all of them. Buying them on CD seemed expensive.  For example, getting TeX on five CDs from CTAN costs $45.

A short time ago, I found a solution that made a TeX demo a breeze.  A solution based on the Debian distribution, and which includes over 1200 Debian packages. A solution with half a gigabyte of scientific software. A solution that was easy to use, and which wouldn't touch a computer's hard drive.  I wanted a solution that was simple, powerful, and free.

I found the Quantian distribution. The free download (800 Meg) is available at the University of Washington. European download sites include RedIRIS (in Spain), EpiGenomics (in Germany) , and T. Boegenielsen's site (in Denmark).  To get it on CD, visit ($2.29), ($1.99), ($4.99), ($5.50 AUD), or (3.95 EUR).

Quantian is a math-intensive Linux distribution for Intel-based systems.  Get Quantian, then reboot your system from the CD.  A Knoppix screen will come up, with  boot: at the bottom.  Press enter, and wait 4 minutes as your computer setup is detected automatically.  You'll then be looking at Quantian Linux.  When done, log-off, eject the disk, and reboot to your usual system.  "That's unbelievable!" is comment from a friend I showed this to.

Quantian Viewers
Figure 1.  Screenshot of Quantian.  (Click image for full-size)

The screenshot above is from my Windows computer.  Quantian does not touch the hard drive -- indeed, hard drive writes are by default impossible.  Read access is automatic, allowing file-reading from the hard drive.  Quantian makes a great emergency boot disk.  For this column, I wanted to write to my flash memory card, so I right-clicked on that drive and changed the write access, then collected screenshots.

I brought up Konqueror (the KDE browser), connected to the internet, and paid a visit to Donald Knuth's site for a TeX file to play with.  I chose his excellent paper on Leaper Graphs, and saved it to the flash memory card. (lg.tex in the lower left).  I then brought up a Linux Shell, so I could have access to the command line (upper left).  I typed  tex  to invoke the program, then  /mnt/hde1/lg.tex  to give the location (your location may vary).  TeX went to work, and saved "lg.dvi" to the ramdisk Quantian had automatically set up (lower right).  I clicked on that, and read the marvelous paper (upper right).  A free online resource for learning TeX is at Making TeX Work.

TeX demo in Quantian
Figure 2.  A step by step demonstration of viewing a TeX file using Quantian. (click image for full size)

That was easy.  Next, I decided to peek at one of the postscript pre-fascicles available for The Art of Computer Programming, Volume 4. With a click, I opened it and read it with ghostview (fascinating stuff).

There are many, many more mathematics tools available in Quantian.  Pieces of various screenshots can be seen below. Quantian contains many more things, but this column is not long enough to contain them all.

Quantian Programs
Figure 3.  Some of the programs available in the Quantian distribution.

Here is a brief run down of links, programs, and other goodies in Quantian. Quantian does all this by a remastering of Knoppix. It is the first math-specific Live CD (a list of Live CDs is maintained at

If you'd like to know more, a paper about Quantian was printed in the DSC 2003 Proceedings, or you can visit the Quantian site.  If you have a software package that could support Quantian, get it into a Debian package first, then request a push into Quantian.  If you are an artist, custom background images for Quantian are needed.  If you like math, this is a present.


Dirk Eddelbuettel.  The Quantian Scientific Computing Environment.

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Comments are welcome. Please send comments to Ed Pegg Jr. at

Ed Pegg Jr. is the webmaster for He works at Wolfram Research, Inc. as the administrator of the Mathematica Information Center.