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May 19, 2009

WolframAlpha.com Will it change the internet forever?

Is it really an invention that will change the internet forever as one British news site proclaims? Or is it, as others have described it, the newest and most important golf blog research tool in the history of humankind or the magical search engine that will channel all kinds of data to give you coherent answers.

What exactly is this new website that appeared just this past weekend but is already getting over 700,000 hits a day?

The WolframAlpha folks call it a “computational knowledge engine” (sure, whatever you say). Their goal is to “make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone.” Sounds geeky, huh? And while there are lots of ‘geeky’ parts to it, there are also lots of things that people like you and me can use it for.

Wolfram Alpha will not only give a straight answer to questions such as “how high is Mount Everest?”, but it will also produce a neat page of related information – all properly sourced – such as geographical location and nearby towns, and other mountains, complete with graphs and charts.

The real innovation, however, is in its ability to work things out “on the fly”, according to its British inventor, Dr Stephen Wolfram. If you ask it to compare the height of Mount Everest to the length of the Golden Gate Bridge, it will tell you. Or ask what the weather was like in London on the day John F Kennedy was assassinated, it will cross-check and provide the answer. Ask it about D sharp major, it will play the scale. Type in “10 flips for four heads” and it will guess that you need to know the probability of coin-tossing. If you want to know when the next solar eclipse over Chicago is, or the exact current location of the International Space Station, it can work it out.

From “An invention that could change the internet for ever”

The website’s examples page lists 29 broad categories it can handle questions about. These include Mathematics, Statistics & Data Analysis, Physics, Chemistry, Materials, Engineering, Astronomy, Earth Sciences, Life Sciences, Technological World, Transportation, Computational Sciences, Web & Computer Systems, Units & Measures, Money & Finance, Dates & Times, Places & Geography, Socioeconomic Data, Weather, Health & Medicine, Food & Nutrition, Words & Linguistics, Culture & Media, People & History, Education, Organizations, Sports & Games, Music, Colors.

Here are examples of some of the things you may want to ask Wolfram.

Weather

  • What was the weather like in my hometown in the past? You’re planning a picnic for July 4th and want to know what the average temperature has been. I’ve not yet found a way to get it to tell me how often it rains on July 4th. Want to know what the weather was like the day you were born?
  • Compute a wind chill index or heat index. It’s 25° and the wind is 26 mph. Kids, you’d better put on an extra layer today.
  • What’s the weather like in San Jose right now? (Handy to have before you call someone.)

Dates and Time

  • Information about a particular date. When was sunrise in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1776? What day of the week was it? How many days or weeks since I was born? What day of the week was I born on?
  • What’s the current time in Hamburg, Germany – nice to know before you make that phone call.
  • Create a calendar for next year.
  • What day is Easter on next year?
  • When are holidays next year? (U.S., international and religious/cultural)

Sports and Games

  • General information on a sports team, including win/loss histories.
  • Compare stats for different teams. Compare passing touchdowns for the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos.
  • Compute card probabilities. What is the probability 3 queens and 2 jacks in a 5 card hand?

Words and Linguistics

  • Information on a word. Definitions, word origin, pronunciation, synonyms, narrow terms, broader terms and hyphenation.
  • Anagrams of a word or phrase.
  • Words matching a pattern. What 9 letter words are there with ‘al’ as the second and third letters and ‘la’ as the 6th and 7th letters. (Do I hear all you crossword puzzlers scurrying to open wolframalpha.com?
  • Words ending with certain letters. (What words end in ‘ager’?
  • Document length comparisons. How many words in a 500 page document? How many pages if a document has 50,000 words? How many megabytes is that? How many lines? How long would it take to type it? To read it aloud?
  • Translate words or phrases into Morse code.
  • The Soundex code for a word.
  • Words that sound similar.

Health and Medicine

  • Stats based on height and weight (and age and gender if you want). Body mass index, ideal body weight, fat mass and lean body mass. You also get fun things like total water (in quarts) and blood (in pints), lung capacity and heart volume.eye-chart
  • Growth charts based on gender, age, height and weight. Get projected adult height, weight and BMI. You’ll also get a number of charts that show how the height and weight compares to others the same age and gender. Too bad I don’t have that information from when I was a kid…
  • How many calories do you burn in different kinds of exercise?
  • Maximum and target heart rates.
  • Compute blood alcohol level.
  • Estimated risk of heart disease based on gender and age.
  • Life expectancy and survival probabilities. If I’m a 30 year old woman in the U.S., what is my life expectancy? What’s the likelihood that I’ll live to age 80?
  • Information about specific medical tests. Compare results based on your gender and age. What percentage of people my age have a higher or lower result?
  • What does it mean to have 20/50 vision? You get to see that nifty graphic to the right that shows what that vision chart looks like and how close you have to be to see, for example, 24 point type.
  • Drug interactions.
  • Information on a hospital and compare hospitals.

Food and Nutrition

  • Nutritional information. What’s in 2 slices of Swiss cheese, 10 peanut M&Ms…
  • Nutrient level in a particular food. How much vitamin A in 2 ounces of sweet potato?

Culture and Media

  • Information about a book, periodical, movie, or song.
  • Compare books, periodicals, movies, or songs.
  • Who wrote a song?
  • Complete an aphorism. A penny saved…
  • Complete a nursery rhyme.

People and History

  • Compute family relationships. Grandmother’s aunt is your great grandaunt.

Family Relationships

  • Information on family names. Based on the 2000 US census, how many people have that name? This piece of Wolfram definitely needs work. When I put my name in, it responded that it isn’t sure what to do with my input!
  • Information on an occupation, including average salaries. Compare occupations.
  • Information on current and past political leaders. Who is the current president of Mozambique?
  • Date of a historical event.
  • Construct a timeline of events.
  • timeline

  • Compare dollar values. If Grandpa spent $500 in 1910, what would that cost today? What’s an income of $50,000 today compared to 1940?

Astronomy

  • Generate a star chart so you can see where stars and planets will be from your location on a given date (past, present and future).
  • Information about where a planet was on a specific date (including a star chart)
  • When is the next solar or lunar eclipse?

It’s far from perfect yet. And I think sometimes the traffic is pretty heavy. But at least they have a sense of humor when them can’t do help you. Here’s one error I saw.

Sorry Dave

Stay tuned to see what other things people discover Wolfram Alpha can be used for. If you find interesting uses, please share your discoveries by posting a comment.

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