Thursday, April 7, 2011

Wolfram Alpha: A Researcher's Friend

Google has some handy calculators built right into the query box, but an even more sophisticated answer engine exists that acts much like Google. It's called Wolfram Alpha. It is an online service that attempts to answer queries by computing the answer from structured data instead of a list of documents or webpages that might contain the answer like a search engine would. To see how this works, enter some of these examples into Wolfram Alpha and see what you get:

  • "mortgage 5.25%, 30 year, $100000" displays the monthly payment, effective interest rate, amortization table and total interest paid.

  • "419-499-4663" (a phone number), displays the city/town of the number as well as the current time there and the current weather conditons, the population of the city and lists nearby cities

  • "temperature milan, ohio 2007", displays the average low and high temperature in 2007 and shows a graph of the temperature by month. You can also switch out the word temperature with precipitation to get the rainfall and snowfall amounts.

  • "May 25, 1982", which happens to be my birthday will show you how long ago the date was (or is in the future if a future date) in many different ways as well as what happened on that date and sunrise/sunset times as well as the phase of the moon.

  • "IBM Apple" compares the two businesses with respect to financials, stock performance, projections, and others.

  • "1 apple, 1 orange" compares apples to oranges, literally! Nutrition facts, minerals, even physical properties such as mass, serving volume and serving density are also compared.

  • "William John" who has the more popular name?

  • "dollars euros" as you can guess shows you just how bad the current exchange is.

  • "int sinx/x dx, x=0..infinity". Calculus is a breeze too.

You can also ask plain english questions:

  • "How old was Queen Elizabeth II in 1974?"

  • "What is the forty-eighth smallest conuntry by GDP per captita?"

  • "What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?"

Wolfram Alpha shows that just searching for information is not the only thing the web can do for you. In fact, it can help you to do research on the fly and find answers to questions that have never even been asked or answered before. It is no replacement for Google, but it has the potential to be the smartest search utility on the web. I wonder if Wolfram Alpha will soon be another one of Google's purchase. We'll just have to wait and see.