Using LaTeX at SIUE for students

What is LaTeX?

LaTeX is a way to typeset mathematical documents. There are other ways to typeset documents that include mathematics, including Scientific Workplace and Microsoft Word. LaTeX is usually not like Word in that you can type and click buttons to get what you want. You usually have to "code" a little bit. LaTeX is a mark-up language, just like HTML (the "code" behind webpages) is.

Can I use LaTeX to write my SIUE masters thesis?

Why should I use LaTeX?

Where to begin! At SIUE, the two main competitors are Scientific Workplace and Microsoft Word. In comparison to MS Word, I believe LaTeX has the clear upper hand. Finished documents look much nicer and cleaner. Word is incapabable of automatically numbering equations. Word does not keep track of references and section numbers --- if you move a section in LaTeX the numbering automatically changes. Word does not have all the symbols mathematicians typically need. Word is slow, clunky on large documents, and is not easily shared with other people (how you see a document and how I see a document would be different). Only a very tiny portion of the mathematical community uses Word.

Scientific Workplace (SWP) is a much better program, but I still dislike it. Let me stress --- many faculty use SWP, and it will produce satisfactory results for your senior project, thesis, etc. I think LaTeX still has the upper hand. I find SWP difficult to cajole into doing what I want. SWP files are not compatible across all platforms as SWP is not available for the Mac. Most importantly, SWP is VERY expensive ($260 for a student license). We have SWP on campus in the labs, but then you need to do all your writing on campus. (Important note: students completing their senior project may get a 1 semester home license to a crippled version of Scientific Workplace. See your senior project director for more details.)

LaTeX suffers from none of these problems. LaTeX is 100% free. LaTeX is available on essentially every computing platform (you could probably install it on your coffee maker...) It is generally fast. It is capable of typesetting essentially every type of mathematics. The distinct disadvantage is that you have to learn something to use it. For the most part, you must learn a small amount of the mark-up language to typeset documents. There are very good (free) help files available for this. If you enjoyed CS 140, I think you'll have no problem picking up LaTeX quickly. I've also provided some templates to get you started.

How can I use LaTeX?

There are two answers here: one if you want to use it ONLY on your laptop or home computer, and another if you want total portability. I really like the totally portable solution, but I'm not personally using it.
Totally portable --- LaTeX on a USB drive
This USBTeX distribution is based entirely on the distribution by Bill Slough and Duane Broline at Eastern Illinois University. This solution will allow you to put LaTeX on a USB drive. You can then use LaTeX on any Windows machine that has a USB port (the labs, your home computer, etc.) This solution is a bit slower than installing LaTeX as below, but using a flash drive is very easy, and you have your editor whenever you need it. Follow the directions carefully. First, download USBTeX (currently available for Windows only). Then, download and read carefully the directions.
LaTeX on your desktop or laptop
You'll need to install LaTeX and all the associated tools. For Windows, I recommend proTeXt, available here. For the Mac, I recommend MacTeX, available here. These are large files (typically around 600 mb). If you have a dial-up connection, then download from campus onto your flash drive. These programs must be installed; they will not run from the flash drive alone. You'll need administrator rights on the computer you are using.

Getting help for LaTeX

The best free comprehensive references is The Not So Short Introduction to LaTeX 2e. If you learn that, you're in good shape. Also very good is this WikiBook. But that's a few pages, so I've collected here some much shorter tutorials. See Dr. Broline's page for the originals.