Wolfram Alpha – A Step Closer to Star Trek’s Computer

Guy McDowell 18-05-2009

green_alien_womanIt always amazed me how the crew of the Enterprise could just bark out a question and get a definitive answer right away.


“Computer, can I catch anything from green women?”

“Yes, so take protection, Captain.”

So, Kirk straps on the phaser. If only we had that kind of computational technology today, think of the trouble we could have avoided in college.

Wolfram Alpha is working towards that. Don’t expect it to replace Google but rather, let it become a part of your research tool repertoire.  What it is intended to do is to take any phrase or question and figure out the best answer it can for you. It doesn’t just spew back a few hundred thousand sites where you might find the answer.

Here’s the response I got to entering the name Stephen Harper.


stephen_harperYou’ve got all the basics about Prime Minister Stephen J. Harper. There is one mistake though – he’s not the head of state. The Governor General is, in Canada. But I digress.

I find it interesting that the data is presented in the form of an image. However, if you click on the image you will be presented with a plain-text version of the data, suitable for copying and pasting into your essay or other paper. You’ll also see that you can expand your results by clicking on terms related to the data result. I went ahead and clicked on P.M. Harper’s birthday. This is what I got!

harpers_birthdayI found it interesting that Paul Gross was born on the same day since he’s kind of a Canadian icon as well, for his role in the TV show Due South as well as the more recent movie Paeschendaele. Can’t forget Men With Brooms either.

There is some location detection based on IP address, since Wolfram returned the daylight information for Red Deer, Alberta, Canada.


What you can deduce from this brief test is that Wolfram isn’t an everyday kind of tool for people who just want to surf the web. It is a serious research tool. Where it really shines is when you start presenting it with inquiries of an academic nature.

I’m working on a project involving ethylene glycol. Don’t ask, I do weird stuff sometimes. Just searching on the term presented me with more information than I wanted but it was clear and concise. I did learn a thing or two about good old C2H6O2 though.

Here’s what I wanted to know:

ethylene_glycol_basic_propeYou can see why this stuff makes good antifreeze. But here’s some interesting things I didn’t know. You might not care, but did you know that this stuff has a flash point lower than its boiling point? That’s kind of weird. Apparently, it also has approval status as an experimental drug? What?! Hey I’m sick, maybe I need some antifreeze. I feel a quart low. That just sounds like a bad idea. I digress, again.


So maybe you’re not a science person, maybe you’re a money person. Wolfram also shines on returning specific information related to the markets. To show you it’s capabilities, all that I have entered are the two words Microsoft and Apple. Here’s what was returned in a matter of seconds.


And on and on it goes. I don’t understand a lot of this information but I suppose if you were a stock analyst, this would be a fantastic tool.

I feel compelled to remind you though, that this called Wolfram Alpha for a reason. It’s still in a testing phase and you may encounter errors. There really isn’t enough server power behind it right now to answer all requests immediately. But at least you’ll get a cute error message.



The point is, if you need very specific or very concise information, check out Wolfram Alpha – it’s really quite good at it’s job. I can definitely see how this will become the research tool of choice for a lot of people.

What do you use for your research? Have you tried out Wolfram Alpha? Let’s us know about your experiences in the comments below.

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  1. samjohnno
    June 5, 2009 at 12:50 am

    Yeah it is great, but it is a bit annoying with certain phrases that you input and it doesn't have any result for it, but I guess that will improve with time.

    One thing that would be reallly good if it could include things such as I'm doing a health based course, be able to present results of anatomy such as this is this muscle, its insertion, orgin, function. etc. etc. Would be really useful for health students.

  2. fasil
    May 19, 2009 at 7:48 am

    Cool site,
    But not so friendly, once we get use to it we can start exploring it very well..

    The way it delivers the data is so much stunning.......

  3. Munkypint
    May 19, 2009 at 5:07 am

    Love the way it does things and totally agree its nothing to do with Google. Totally different process and needs. It actually figures things out rather then simply present already existing websites. Brilliant, it even maps GPS coordinates

  4. Italian Rocketeer
    May 18, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    I've used Wolfram a little and it's simultaneously impressed and disappointed me, when it actually answers my question it's always great but it comes up with errors most of the time.

  5. Amy
    May 18, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    very cool it can actually solve equations

    • Guy McDowell
      May 18, 2009 at 4:27 pm

      Complex ones too! I love this Wolfram.