Wolfram Alpha. For anyone that has never used it or heard of it, it sounds like the name of one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. For people familiar with it, it’s like having access to that magical hand-held device Dr. Sam Beckett had in the popular TV show Quantum Leap, that was linked to the computer known as Ziggy.
In fact, it’s almost identical to Ziggy. In the show, Ziggy was ultra-specific to the point of being too literal at times. In one episode, Dr. Beckett asks Ziggy, “What have you got on Al?” Al is Beckett’s faithful holographic sidekick. Ziggy responds, “he’s 175.26 centimeters tall, weighs 70.91…”
Once you understand this about Wolfram Alpha, you will be able to utilize the it in ways that you’ve never imagined. You can’t ask vague, general questions. Picture it as though you’re talking directly to a computer system. Would you ask a computer, “How smart was Albert Einstein?” or would you simply ask, “When did Albert Einstein die?” Wolfram Alpha can’t answer the first question, but if you ask it the second question, you’ll learn that Albert Einstein died on Monday, April 18th, 1955, approximinately 57 years, 7 months, 7 days ago, on the 108th day and 16th week of 1955, which was coincidentally the start of the Bandung Conference. Oh, and sunrise on that day was at 4:58 am EST and sunset was at 6:30 pm EST.
Yeah – that’s the power of Wolfram Alpha.
Using Wolfram Alpha Like An Information Ninja
We have covered Wolfram a lot here at MakeUseOf. So, if you’re looking for a reference when using it, you’ve found it at MUO. There’s a list of 10 great query examples provided by Saikat, as well as his earlier list the year before, which included the cool “where am I?” IP geolocation feature that Wolfram Alpha can use. Oh, and don’t forget Justin’s list of weird and wacky search terms that he tried out on Wolfram Alpha. If you know Justin, they wouldn’t seem quite so weird. Trust me.
But other than randomly typing in queries and hoping that Wolfram Alpha can figure out what you’re trying to ask, by following a few simple guidelines, you’ll be able to turn Wolfram Alpha from a novelty search engine into a powerful tool that will make you the life of the party and the envy of all your friends.
Okay, maybe not that amazing, but pretty darn close.
So what’s the secret to formulating the right questions for Wolfram? Again, it’s all about understanding how a computer would think. Computers think in terms of numbers, facts, science and specifics. Being specific is critical. If you can achieve this method of asking questions, you can harness the power of this impressive online computer.
Formulating Research Wolfram Queries
This tool is best used when you have specific information that you want to know. Maybe you’re writing a research paper and you need to quickly find out the population of India. Yes, you could search Google and then try to locate websites where a census of India is published. You may or may not get the most recent data.
Consider Wolfram as the place to turn when you need hard data. Sometimes, that data may not be apparent until you need it. Consider a situation where you’ve sold 15 square boxes of something on eBay and you need to ship them all. You don’t have anything available to ship them in except a round shoebox. You’ve tried to shove those 15 little boxes every which way into that circle and can’t get it to work. It’s like a puzzle – but it’s a puzzle Wolfram Alpha can help you solve.
I know it’s not a scenario that you’d find yourself in every day, but I bet there are people that work in shipping that are getting pretty excited right about now. Wolfram will help you fit together geometric shapes in ways you’ve never imagined, and you can even provide specific dimensions, like the radius of the circle, to figure out how other geometric shapes of certain sizes can fit together inside of it.
Aside from geometric puzzles, Wolfram also likes providing measurements of just about anything you can imagine. In an instant, you can learn the height of Mount Kilimanjaro, the distance to the moon (including specific monthly variations), or the width of Niagra Falls.
Think about all of the measurements from around the world that you can learn from this amazing computational knowledge engine. I bet you’re getting excited now, right? We’ve only just started.
How about the weather? Sure, you can just open up Google and type in “Current weather in San Francisco” and get an instant 5 day forecast at the top of search listings, but what about the weather there in 1940? Aha – Google is stumped, or at least you will have to spend time sifting through the records of the Weather Bureau in the National Archives.
Or, you could pull up your trusty sidekick and simply ask it for the weather anywhere in the world at any time.
You even get a historic graph showing average temperatures for the years near the time period you’re looking for. Sorta like how Ziggy would answer, right?
Forget your standard weather forecasts, Wolfram has mountains of data in its data banks about weather patterns all around the globe. If you can be specific enough, you can ask for the current precipitation levels in Berlin, the current humidity in Toronto, or the current wind direction in Tokyo.
If you’re a writer or an academic, I’m sure there are lots of times when you find yourself sitting there, stick in your work simply because you don’t know some small, specific piece of information. Well, the Wolf can fetch that small fact in an instant. Things like the death rate in California, the birth rate in Canada, or the unemployment rate in Houston, Texas.
All of this data also provides you with some historical data as well. If you’re writing a research paper or need this kind of information for any reason, it’s right there at your fingertips. All you have to do is ask.
Starting to see the possibilities now, right? You will truly become an information Ninja once you get the hang of using this powerful knowledge engine. The cool thing is that once you get the hang of it, you can even start doing the manipulation of data right inside the search field. For example, you can do calculations using population numbers.
In the example below, I’m subtracting the population of the U.S. and Canada from the population of China, just to put the difference into perspective.
In a couple of seconds, I’ve learned that in 2011, there were 1.02 billion more people in China than there are in both the U.S. and Canada combined. Try doing that sort of data-research at the library and see how long it takes you.
Don’t worry, Wolfram isn’t just for the academic or the writer. There are plenty of everyday uses for this little personal computer guide of yours. It is a brilliant help when it comes to shopping for the best deals online. I know you think that search engines have that area covered, but once you start hunting for deals with your new friend, the Wolf, you’ll realize how much more quickly you can find the best prices.
You can type searches like “cheapest computer“, to find the least expensive computer available in the computer industry. Apparently, that’s the Kaser deskstop computer with 1GB of memory and 8GB flash storage for a measly $92.98. Sweet.
Maybe you went on that shopping trip and are staying at a hotel. You need to know where the nearest ATM is. Sounds like a great, specific search for the Wolf!
You’ll not only get the name and address of the location you’re looking for, but it includes a map as well.
On a diet? Yeah, the Wolf has you covered there too. You can find the nutritional information about any food just by typing the specific name of the food, whether it’s yogurt, apple pie or oatmeal. Type in the food, and get a full list of the nutritional facts – total calories, fat, carbs, sodium and more per serving.
Or you can ask for specific nutritional information, like the total calories in a Burger King Whopper. Prepare yourself for the truth.
If you haven’t used Wolfram Alpha before, it can take some time to get used to this form of searching for information. Again, unlike Google or Bing, your searches are not vague or wide in scope. They need to be very specific if you want this little personal data-bank to understand what information you’re trying to look up.
If you need help, you can always click on the “Examples” link under the search field, or just start typing a word related to your search, and you’ll see a list of the most common searches in a dropdown list. This can be a huge help when you aren’t exactly sure how to formulate the query.
Even the vague stuff, like “when will the world end“, which would turn up volumes of conspiracy theory websites on search engines like Google or Bing, will result in a very literal interpretation of that concept. To Wolfram Alpha, the end of the world is literally when the end of the world will occur – essentially, when the sun will burn out.
It’s like having a conversation with the character Data on the TV series Star Trek. Every question is taken literally, not emotionally or in such a way as the computer can be expected to fill in the blanks for you. You have to really spell out what you want to know, or the computational knowlege engine just won’t understand what you’re asking.
Once you master this secret, you’ll find yourself constantly turning to Wolfram Alpha when every other research for data turns up empty.
Are you a regular Wolfram user? Are you new to using this impressive computational knowledge engine? Share some of your own search tricks and experiences in the comments section below.