Today

The Friday Fillip: Alpha Wolf

You have to wonder whether Stephen Wolfram was thinking of top dog when he named his . . . what shall we call it? . . . marvelous machine Wolfram|Alpha. After all, the man is not noted for his humility, though I have to say that when you look at his biography you might conclude that any immodesty on his part is merited.

I’m sure that most of you have at one time or another visited the “answer machine” that is Wolfram|Alpha. If you haven’t been there in a while, I encourage you to go again now and tour the project, because the rewards keep piling up. The project is perhaps properly built for those whose mathematical ability is an order of magnitude or six above mine (see Wolfram’s original introduction video), but there’s a lot there for people like me to like even so. And the aim of this fillip is to give you a quick sense of what that lot includes.

Perhaps the handiest way is to point you to the site’s answer to its own question: “What can you ask Wolfram|Alpha about?” The answers — and examples — come in 36 categories, such as Words & Linguistics, Units & Measures, People & History, Dates & Times, Culture & Media, Socioeconomic Data, Art& Design, Sports & Games . . .

Clicking on a category — Weather & Meteorology, for instance — opens a page full of sample questions with their sample answers, illustrating the range of things that Wolfram|Alpha knows about that topic. Thus, inputting weather into the search box will, as you’d expect, bring up your local forecast along with all manner of allied information about the sources of the information and weather history for that date, etc. Queries can be much more pointed than simply weather: you might want to know the wind direction in Halifax (which was 220° SW, as of 56 minutes ago), or about the climate in Istanbul because you’re lucky enough to be headed there for a holiday.

You’ll notice that beneath most if not all of the answers there is a range of functions, such as download data, customize and save image, and copyable plaintext. These options, and certain other resources, are only available for those who’ve signed up for the Pro version at a cost ($5.49/mo, cheaper for students). It appears, though, that with the basic free version you can share a clip of an interesting result via any one of a number of social media.

What other useful, quotidian things can you do?

And, as the ads say, there’s more. Much much more. 

It may be a little hard to fold this into your research life, given our habitual use of Google for all purposes, but the attempt would be worth it. The results are . . . well, more intelligent than those thrown up by Google’s algorithm, more pinpoint, and they’re typically accompanied on the results page by invitations to explore other aspects of the subject of your query, which can lead to not only more information but also some learning about the range of what Wolfram|Alpha can do.

Wolfram is an element — tungsten, by its other name — extremely hard and dense, almost twice as dense as lead and comparable to the density of gold. For all of that, it proves to be uniquely useful and well worth the effort it takes to mine it for its merits. After all, it composes the filaments that make the light bulb go on over your head.

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