Wolfram|Alpha: Systematic knowledge, immediately computable.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Alpha and The Omega of "Search" Engines?: WolframAlpha

You might have noticed I've embedded WolframAlpha into the heading area of the blog. You might not know what it is.

Stephen Wolfram is one of the brightest people you could ever meet. Most certainly a genius. Educated at Eton, and later attending the University of Oxford he had by the age of eighteen already written cited papers in particle physics and quark production. He received his PhD in particle physics at the California Institute of Technology, where he became a faculty member. There he pursued research in computer science, cellular automata, physics, and cosmology, earning him one of the first awards of the MacArthur Fellows Program, commonly known as the "Genius Award".

While at Caltech, Wolfram worked on the implementation of the computer algebra system SMP, essentially version one of what later became the widely used standard for technical computing, Mathematica. Irascible, opinionated, brash and forceful, Wolfram is not one to shy away from imposing his world views on others. His recent years of research led to the publication of A New Kind Of Science, outlined in my blog entry Life Goes On: Further Ruminations on Conway's Game of Life.

WolframAlpha is Stephen's attempt to provide a generalized "computational knowledge engine". Based on the prodigious capabilities of Mathematica, WolframAlpha simultaneously provides a hyper-capable calculating environment and the ability to query for data, either for the sake of the returned data or for use in calculations. The data used is "curated" by Wolfram Research, providing for a much more reliable level of quality compared to existing search engines.

This is no Google. Asking some generic question is likely to be met with the WolframAlpha equivalent of "Huh?":

Ask the engine something more precise, such as "United States population growth", and the character of the system begins to emerge:

Combine this with calculation capabilities second only to actually purchasing a copy of Mathematica to run locally, and you have truly phenomenal capacity for data gathering, analysis, and calculation at your fingertips.

Here, WolframAlpha shows us the integral of a complex equation integral (sin(theta)/cos(theta)^2^pi):

Give it a try, and visit the site at WolframAlpha for more details.

To give it a whirl right now, try typing "ISS now" (without the quotes) into the WolframAlpha box at the top of the blog entry, and pressing enter  or clicking on the equals sign. Be prepared to be impressed!

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