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Abramowitz and Stegun mark II

Like me I imagine many readers have owned a copy of Handbook of Mathematical Functions (or to use its more well known name “Abramowitz and Stegun”, after its two editors). Some time ago I heard that an updated handbook was being created, time passed and last year the “NIST Handbook of Mathematical Functions” was published, the companion web site has been slowing evolving over the years.

I did not hear anybody raving about the updated handbook and it was priced at more than twice that of the original (whose copyright was in the public domain and thus open to Dover to print a low cost edition {and others to make available online}, NIST are claiming copyright over the updated version which is published by Cambridge University press), so did not rush out to buy a copy.

I recently placed a large order with Amazon US and was tempted by a temporary price reduction to buy the NIST handbook (tip for Europeans: it is often possible to make big savings by ordering from amazon.com, which seems to ship from Germany and arrives a few days later than orders placed with amazon.co.uk),

Summary recommendation:

  • Should somebody who has the original handbook buy the update? Probably not.
  • If somebody had a choice of either, which should they pick? I would go for the original handbook.

The major difference between the handbooks are that the substantial number of precomputed tables of values of functions are not included in the update and there are 12 new chapters covering subjects not included (or not given much prominence) in the original. A not so important difference is the switch from black&white to color in the update, this works well in the online version (on the CD shipped with the book) but works poorly in print form; if a book is intended to be printed its color usage needs to be optimized for reflected light which has different characteristics than the transmitted light of a display..

The argument for removing the tables of values is that software packages can now be used to obtain these. In practice I rarely use the tables of values for this purpose; I use the tables to find the range of function input values that will generate a given rang of output values, or to see how output values change with changes in input values. For me omitting these tables in the update was a big mistake; ok the number of significant digits could have been reduced (to say five) to save some paper. The new chapters often contain various tables of numbers, but they are not extensive, but a conscious decisions seems to have been made to remove tables from existing chapters.

From a user interface point of view I don’t like the glossy paper used in the update, presumably caused by the switch to color which does not work well in the printed version; the angle of the page has to be constantly shifted to reduce glare from overhead lights and the handbook is noticeably heavier even though the page count is down by around 20% (886 vs 1030, excluding index which is substantially improved in the update).

The original has lots of tables, matte pages that don’t glare and is surprisingly light for such a big book. Time will tell whether I find the new chapters useful.

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