Professor’s Laser Focus Gets Mathematics into Office 2010

Editor’s note:
This is the ninth installment in

Ten Behind Office 2010

, a series that features employees behind some of the new and updated features in Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010.

REDMOND, Wash. — June 17, 2010 — As a theoretical physicist, Murray Sargent worried that he was becoming out of touch with reality. So he computerized his house. This was in 1976.

“It was, of course, very early to attempt such an endeavor,” said Sargent, now a partner software design engineer for Global Experience Text (GXP Text) in Microsoft Office.

Sargent had just returned from a sabbatical in Germany as a visiting professor at University of Stuttgart and the Max Planck Institute for Solid-State Physics. Though laser physics was his cup of tea, he was fascinated by microcomputers, and bought an IMSAI 8080.

“I needed to know how electronics worked,” Sargent says. “I ran at least two miles of wire around inside the house, even up into small spaces in the attic. To reach the tight spots, my young daughter ran the wires for me. In the end, the system controlled lighting, heating, and the front door.”

His children didn’t need a key to get in after school – they typed a code into a keypad to unlock the door.

“It was really pretty avant-garde back then,” Sargent says. “I think the neighbors were amused.”

Since then, his career is both storied and varied. Sargent spent the better part of the 1960s at Yale University earning three degrees, bachelor’s through Ph.D., and getting into lasers. In 1969 he became a professor at University of Arizona, where he taught and researched during the school year and consulted at places such as the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, the White Sands Army Missile Range, the Max Plank Institute for Quantum Optics, and Microsoft during the summers.

In 1992 he came to Microsoft to work full-time with yet another avant-garde endeavor in mind – to enable the display and editing of mathematical text in Microsoft Office.

After years of work on the project that included clearing significant technological hurdles, Word 2007 included mathematical functions, and now several Microsoft Office 2010 programs have “math support” – Word, PowerPoint, OneNote and Excel.

“It hasn’t been easy,” says Sargent, who recently discussed his career and the project with Microsoft News Center. “Math in Office 2010 is a very exciting project. And it should help people use math around the world, of course.”

News Center: Why is it important that people can use Office 2010 to display and edit mathematical characters?

Sargent: It makes the documentation needs of somebody that’s using mathematics that much easier, whether it’s for learning, researching, or something else – even for Wall Street, which is a hotbed of mathematical activity. A lot of physicists end up going to Wall Street because they understand probability theory. This will work for them, too.

It’s not just ivory tower types that use it. Teachers can prepare lessons beautifully with it, people can write up results and present them more easily, or you can even create technical books with it.

News Center: What did it take to get math into Office 2010?

Sargent: It actually first shipped with Word 2007, but we wanted to get it into OneNote, PowerPoint, Excel, and a couple other places for Office 2010. We did that.

News Center: So how did you help bring mathematics into Word 2007?

Sargent: I had already written a technical word processor before I came to Microsoft, and for Office 2003 I had a preliminary version of a math editing and display facility. It wasn’t enabled, because it wasn’t ready to be used by anybody, but it did give a proof of principal.

Starting at the end of that version of Office, getting ready for Office 2007, a remarkable thing happened. A bunch of people suddenly came together and we had a group working on mathematical editing and display that numbered about 25 people from various places around the company. Everything just came together.

For Office 2010 we added a bunch of nice things. For example, the math ribbon has galleries for math symbols. If you browse those math symbols, you see what you can type to enter them using the keyboard. Entering mathematics from the keyboard is way faster than using the ribbon.

News Center: Was it a difficult project?

Sargent: It turns out it was actually quite hard. There are many different things you have to worry about in terms of interoperability and user interface. To make something simple for the user is actually very hard on the programmer.

News Center: Why did you leave Arizona and teaching to come to Microsoft?

Sargent: I was consulting already, but I was excited about the possibility of getting mathematical editing and display into Microsoft applications. I thought it was important and that it would help out academia and students in general.

That was one aspect. The other aspect was that I really wanted to work on semi-conductor laser theory, but my funding source wanted me to stay working on atomic media. Funding can be a pain, so I decided to go someplace where I didn’t have to worry about funding. We kept a home in Arizona, so in the winter when it’s just too gray in Seattle, I can go back there and telecommute.

News Center: It sounds like you’ve always had a thing for computers. Do you remember the day you first met one?

Sargent: It was in the summer of ‘61 at the Perkin-Elmer Corporation. It wasn’t a digital computer, it was an analog computer. I did simulations of servo-mechanisms.

News Center: Servo-mechanisms, for the non-technical, means what?

Murray Sargent and his wife, Kamie, are traveling to Mount Everest in October to visit base camp and summit a neighboring peak.

Sargent: Control systems, or keeping things pointing where they’re supposed to point. A human being is part of a servo-mechanism when driving a car. You see where you want to go, you make a little error, and you correct it with the steering wheel.

Anyway, I liked it. It was a summer job, and it was very intriguing. I was going for a bachelor of science in theoretical physics at Yale. It piqued my interest in both computing and in technology.

I got into lasers my senior year at Yale, studying how they work. Then I went to grad school there. My advisor was Willis Lamb, a Nobel Prize winner who had done a definitive theory of lasers. I collaborated with him for many years, including writing a book.

News Center: What would you say is your greatest accomplishment at Microsoft?

Sargent: One of the top things I’m proud of is saving Windows from the OS/2 bulldozer. The summer of 1988, David Weise and I got Windows into protected mode – that got rid of the 640k memory barrier so Windows could use all of its memory. This was a turning point in the history of Windows. At that point it was destined to be dropped in favor of OS2, but after Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates realized it didn’t have to be restricted to small memory spaces the whole game changed and Windows took off. That was glorious summer, the summer of 1988.

This whole math project has also been right up there, and then there’s the RichEdit editor.

News Center: So what does a guy like you do for fun, assuming you have time for fun amid all of the computers, mathematics, and lasers?

Sargent: I like to hike, and my wife Kamie and I love to travel and scuba dive. We also have some grandkids that take some attention, which is given quite welcomely.

We have a destination coming up later this year – Mount Everest. We’re not going to actually climb the whole mountain; we’re just going to go to base camp. We’re going to go to base camp for a day, and then hike to the top of a mountain at 18,000 feet that looks right at Everest. We’ll be there for several weeks. I don’t think we need that much time to acclimate, but then again I’ve never been to 18,000 feet before. I’ve been to the tops of Mount Rainier and Mount Whitney, which are both in the mid-14,000 feet range.

News Center: What’s next for you at Microsoft?

Sargent: We’re all excited about the next version of Office, of course. There are things we want to finish with the math project. It would be nice to get it into Visio and MS Publisher too, then people could do whole textbooks.

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