Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wolfram Alpha -- A Computational Search Engine

WolframAlpha is the best search engine you've never heard of—and it’s a wholly different animal from Google and its analogs. Wolfram bills itself as a “computational knowledge engine,” accessing data from other trusted sources to generate answers to user queries; a not-at-all exhaustive list of these sources includes the CIA’s World Factbook, the United States Geological Survey, and the Dow Jones. Using a piece of software called Mathematica, Wolfram Alpha uses this externally sourced data to generate the numbers it spits back out to users. Most of the information evaluated by Wolfram is numerical in form, which means that it’s an excellent resource for scientific, quantitative data, but is less useful for researchers interested in the social sciences or pop culture, for example.

This introduction is all well and good, but you’re probably wondering to yourself: what can Wolfram Alpha do? The answer: a lot.

From the eschatological to the mundane, Wolfram Alpha has it all—or a ton of it, anyway.

Formulating a useful search query can take some getting used to, so it’s a good idea to start out with Wolfram’s own list of examples (screenshot below). Using these, you can find out your own life expectancy (mine is 82.16--not bad), the weather in Paris in December of 1980 (temperatures ranging from 23 to 55 degrees Farenheit), and the population of New York City in 1875 (1.206 million). 

If you’d like to access this from your mobile device, it’s available as an app too on iPhone, iPad, Android, Kindle fire, and Windows Phone, though it will cost you a whopping $2.99. 

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