Tag Archives: MathML

SVG and MathML in HTML5

The next article in the Developing with HTML5 series.

Pick a flower on Earth and you move the farthest star.

—Paul Dirac

Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) and MathML are XML applications that are widely used in scientific contexts. SVG is used to draw vector graphics, and is frequently found in visualization libraries such as ProtoVis. MathML is used to describe the presentation and meaning of mathematical formulæ. They are very easy to work with in a programmatic sense, because they are XML-based and therefore just text, and yet they are capable of rendering beautiful information in supporting web browsers.

Paul Dirac, who loved the maths.
Paul Dirac, who loved the maths.

The idea behind XHTML was to move the web toward extensibility (the X in XHTML), where a web browser markup language could be seeded with bits of other XML applications by declaring a namespace and letting things coexist. The problem with that plan was that XML parsers were required to be extremely fussy, to the point that if a problem was detected the browser should render an error message. Browsers don’t work that way. Instead, they forgive your human or computer errors and render the page as best as their little hearts can.

In the beginning of the process, HTML5 was not extensible, and to this day it remains opposed to the whole namespace idea. But SVG and MathML are highly popular and useful XML applications that deserve a place within the HTML5 spec. And so shall it be: <svg> and <math> are the opening volleys in inserting SVG and MathML into your HTML5 document tree. Any elements that are children of the SVG and MathML specs are valid and functional child elements of the <svg> and <math> elements respectively. No need to declare a namespace. You’re done. Thank you.

Now this is not to say that the idea of inserting these XML applications within the HTML5 spec is not without some controversy. What about other XML applications and XHTML extensions such as RDFa, CML, and MML? CML (Chemical Markup Language) and MML (Music Markup Language) are indeed common, but within specific application contexts. They are not supported yet by any web browser (whereas MathML and SVG are well supported.) RDFa on the other hand is a more political issue: More on that whole mess in a later post… 😉

So in short, SVG and MathML are supported objects within HTML5 because they are widely deployed in existing web browsers, and they are very useful – particularly to those of us in the science industry charged with representing scientific information on the web. Let’s look at how to get started. First, an SVG example – simply start your SVG block using the <svg> element and drop your SVG markup within:

Here’s a live example that will work in browsers that support SVG and MathML in HTML5. (Try it in the Firefox 4 beta.) Or if you aren’t one of those early-adopting browser users that are used to living dangerously, then please refer to the perfectly safe reference image below:

Reference rendering of the sun in SVG.
Reference rendering of the sun in SVG.

To learn more about SVG, check out the w3schools SVG tutorial for starters. While SVG is supported in basic forms in Chrome, Safari, and Firefox, only Firefox 4 (currently in beta) supports embedding SVG natively in HTML5. But Chrome will follow soon, followed by IE9, Safari, and eventually (hopefully) Opera.

MathML is equally straightforward, using the <math> element as the opener:

Compare to the reference rendering below, or check out the live example.

The Dirac delta function rendered from MathML in Firefox 4 beta
The Dirac delta function rendered from MathML in Firefox 4 beta

Again, currently Firefox 4 beta is the only close-to-shipping browser that supports this. But it is expected to come to all major modern browsers in 2010/2011, including IE9, Safari, Opera, and Google Chrome. To learn more about how to construct MathML, check out Mathematica’s MathML tutorial.

In short, it’s an easy trip to embed SVG and MathML in HTML5. No namespaces are required. The trade-off is less extensibility, but if you need extensibility back there’s an XML flavor of HTML5, appropriately titled XHTML5. In the meantime, start looking for ways to leverage SVG and MathML in the coming months as capable browsers start coming online! While this is indeed a bit on the bleeding-edge side of things, web browsers are beginning to implement these features and I expect over the next year or two the practice of embedding SVG and MathML markup in HTML5 web pages will become entirely commonplace within the scientific community.

MathML+WebKit

If you’re the kind of person who likes to download WebKit nightly builds to tinker with emerging features (and who isn’t?), then you’ll be interested to try out MathML support which is now turned on by default.

MathML is supported server-side in several wiki platforms I regularly deal with (such as Confluence and MediaWiki), and it has always been an important requirement for support from my colleagues in the science community who do any kind of math research (but second place to LaTeX). This is the first time I’ve seen it supported in a major browser platform though. The mathematics community will be very interested in this sort of thing, and I expect at some point in the future we’ll just be embedding MathML into markup and publishing it rather than having to rely on a server-side library to parse it. Yea! 😀 I know it sounds more geeky than usual, but this is pretty cool in my book – especially from an applications perspective.

The only thing more geeky about downloading WebKit nightly builds is getting excited over new XML functionality. 🙂 Also slightly related: both SVG and HTML5 canvas will be supported in IE9, making it doable in all modern browsers when that finally gets released and older versions become rarely used. It will become an increasing trend to represent data in these formats, natively in markup, rather than relying on 3rd party server-side libraries or plugins. Standards eventually win, usually…