WolframAlpha, at the most basic level, is a very elaborate search engine first made public in 2009. Its goal is to remove the middleman – essentially, Google without the results page, if it could bring you the very best result without having to click through a bunch of links first. WolframAlpha’s speciality is facts: not only will it answer your question or find an answer to your problem, it will show you exactly how it did so and provide a wealth of extra information. This is why WolframAlpha prefers to be known as a “Computational Knowledge Engine.” It’s not at Skynet levels yet, but it’s still pretty neat. It can solve your math problems, figure out the rhyme scheme and meter of a poem, or tell you how the weather today compares to the weather 100 years ago.
For your amusement, I decided to enter a variety of things into WolframAlpha and see what it could tell me:
Typing she-bomb: It tells me it has assumed “bomb” refers to pyroclastic particle sizes, after which it tells me that a bomb can be 32 to 15, 240 mm in diameter. One click converts this to 1.3 to 6oo inches. I would not want to be hit in the head with a she-bomb.
Typing Huckle: WolframAlpha interpreted this as a surname and told me that it is the 57,252nd most common U.S. surname. I had no idea! Using this number, it figured out that this is 1/833,333 people – in other words, 333 people in the country. In comparison, my real name is used by 175,577 people. Maybe I should change it.
Of course, I stopped to ask How drunk am I?: Being 185 pounds, it told me that 6 drinks in the 1.3 hours I have been sitting here has given me a BAC of 0.15% – thank goodness for SpellCheck. If I want to drive to Cumby’s to pick up a slushy, I have to wait 4 hours and 40 minutes to be back at a 0.08%. I know from experience walking that I cannot drive at a 0.08%, so after checking the included blood alcohol vs. time graph, I can see that after almost 8 hours, I’ll be well enough to drive. Looks like I’ll be walking to Captain Candy.
Considering I have a lot invested in frozen concentrated orange juice futures, I figured I’d look that up. Today, it closed at 199.8 cents/pound. That’s not far off the 10-year high of 219.95 cents/pound. So I’m doing okay. And I’m beating soybean futures.
Typing ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX: I can see right off the bat that FOX is the clear newcomer, founded in 1986. In contrast, NBC’s been around since 1938 – it’s an old fogey. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell me public opinion or anything interesting like that, which is the one real weakness of WolframAlpha and why I can’t see it ever replacing search engines like Google or Bing. If you want to read things like She-Bomb, the New York Times news and opinion pages, or click through Reddit, you’re better off staying with the regular old Internet. But if you want facts, facts, facts, and if you need help with your Calculus homework, give WolframAlpha a try. It’s like a TI-89 jacked into Wikipedia – basically, all the information you could ever need, nicely parsed and sorted into bite-sized factoids.