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Discussion on: "In science and engineering, superscript and subscript is very common. It is semantic, not a formatting issue."

Radomir: However, the terms used in science can always be read out loud, so they have their, somewehat more elaborate, replacements ("m²"="square meter", "H₂O"="Dihydrogen Monoxide", "∑ₓ₌₀ⁿx"= "sum of numbers from 0 to n", "⌬"="benzene ring", etc.) -- the symbols are only shortcuts created for use inside formulas.

Gregor: This is partly true, but a) some symbols like "x₂" are simply read as "x-two", which is not acceptable in writing, and b) scientific writing is governed by rules of conduct, which consider the spelling-out option often inacceptable. The point is: are non-programmers willing to use wikis or do they walk away back to their "Microsoft Word + Adobe PDF" preference?

Radomir: From my own experience (mainly math and physics, sorry), the symbols are used either when you refer to them used in formulas and figures or when you're lazy and using jargon that everyone should be familar anyways. Tha latter is often considered bad style, but it depends on conext, of course -- it can be a real time saver and allows you to get the idea across fast. This is important in wikis.

Then, if you already have the formulas, it is a good idea to use exactly the same technique to create the symbols when you refer to them -- so that they look the same, for example (LaTeX is going to render the formulas with its special fonts that are very different from the browser's ones, for example). It also saves the users learning new markup and thinking of several ways to achieve the same effect in different context -- they can just copy and paste.

I agree that a wiki should provide features needed by its community -- for a scientific wiki, a LaTeX or very similar extension is simply a must. I even listed a proposed markup in the HintsOnExtending -- the same that is used in LaTeX for embedding math: $x_2$. I believe it is at least as easy to type as x2 and has several additional benefits: the symbols appear exactly as in formulas, being distinguished from the main text, the markup is identical to that in the formulas and you can even copy parts of the text directly to/from your LaTeX sources. Plus the risk of any collisions or surprising effects is much lower.

On the other hand, a wiki dedicated to different topics, like gardening, will be much better off with just a simple filter converting commonly used phrases, like m2->m² or h2o->H₂O. As long as they are readable in the source form, the interoperability doesn't really suffer.

I always like to bring up the Sensei's Library as an example of a wiki that has its markup adopted to suit the needs of its community. One can hardly imagine such an extension in a core specification for all the wikis in the world.

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« This particular version was published on 26-Feb-2007 21:28 by