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A Users Guide to WolframAlpha

Welcome to WolframAlpha™. No need to download and install any special software or plugins, WolframAlpha (sometimes spelled Wolfram|Alpha) is a web site – not unlike Google™.

Use the following topics to learn Wolfram basics:

  • What is WolframAlpha?
  • Getting Started with WolframAlpha
  • When to use WolframAlpha rather than Google
  • How to Write Simple Queries
  • Getting Financial Data
  • Getting Medical Data
  • Getting Scientific Data
  • Writing Mathematical Queries
  • Exporting Results
  • Finding the Easter Eggs
  • Programming WolframAlpha
  • Problem Reports

What is WolframAlpha?

Let’s ask WolframAlpha what it thinks it is.

Go to the WolframAlpha site http://www.wolframalpha.com/ and type What is WolframAlpha? into the search box:

WolframAlpha

This is known as a natural language query –- it takes your English sentence and interprets it.

WolframAlpha responds, “I am a computational knowledge engine.”

How does this differ from a search engine like Google? If you type a natural language query like this into Google’s search box, you’ll get something entirely different – a list of web pages that match what you typed. For example, all the sites that match “What are you?” including links to the rock band The Who, Pearl Gaskin’s interviews, and images that contain the words “What”“are” and “you.”

Google crawls the web for its answer. WolframAlpha searches its own huge database of factual data to find the correct information and computes the answer from structured data.

Getting Started with WolframAlpha
If you tried the example in the previous section, you’re already started using WolframAlpha.

WolframAlpha is the brainchild of Stephen Wolfram, a British physicist and former child prodigy who, in 1988, created the Mathematica computer program used by scientists, researchers and engineers to perform complex mathematics using large volumes of data. Wolfram is also the author of A New Kind of Science, a paradigm-shattering work that has been compared to Newton’s Principia Mathematica.

Wolfram provides an instructional screencast video to help you get started.  It’s well worth your time if you’re interested in using WolframAlpha. Watch it here. The WolframAlpha web site also provides numerous examples of how to enter queries as well as mathematical formulas into WolframAlpha’s search box. Watch it here.

When to use WolframAlpha rather than Google
WolframAlpha is designed to provide clear, straightforward answers to specific questions using natural language queries and equations. Google gives you links to all the web pages (often millions or even billions) related to whatever you type into its search box.

An article in UK’s Telegraph summarizes the differences, “a Google search, for, say, the nutritional values of a Big Mac returns 123,000 results which web users then have to sift through to find the facts they want. A similar search on Wolfram Alpha will, in theory, return a single answer, detailing the calories, fat content and salt levels in the McDonald’s burger.”

Let’s try it. Type Tell me about Big Mac nutrition? into WolframAlpha’s search box:

WolframAlpha

You get a complete nutritional breakdown of the Big Mac that goes considerably beyond the screenshot above. WolframAlpha gives you computed results such as average daily value ranking for protein, total fat, saturated fat, vitamin A, and vitamin C. It also gives you graphs showing the average highest nutrients compared to other foods, and tables showing averages for calories, carbohydrates, fats, protein, vitamins, minerals, and sterols.

Here are some of the graphs:

WolframAlpha

How to Write Simple Queries
You’ve already seen several examples of simple natural language queries. You don’t need to write complete English sentences, WolframAlpha (mostly) understands your shorthand. You’ll need to experiment a little to get your queries just right.

Here are some simple examples:

  1. Generate a map of Afghanistan: afghanistan map
  2. Find U.S. life expectancies: us life expectancies
    (77.89 by the way)
  3. Do basic arithmetic: 534 + 1267
  4. Create a decimal approximation: pi to 1000 digits
  5. Make a graph of x3 – 6×2 + 4x + 12: plot x^3 – 6x^2 + 4x + 12
  6. Compare GDP per capita for the U.S. and China: GDP per capita US/China

These examples just scratch the surface. A complete list of topics currently supported by WolframAlpha includes:

Mathematics Life Sciences Places & Geography Education
Statistics & Data Technological World Socioeconomic Data Organizations
Physics Transportation Weather Sports & Games
Chemistry Computational Sciences Health & Medicine Music
Materials Web & Computer Systems Food & Nutrition Colors
Engineering Units & Measures Words & Linguistics
Astronomy Money & Finance
Culture & Media
Earth Sciences Dates & Times
People & History
 

Getting Financial Data

WolframAlpha lets you do a number of financial calculations and complex calculations. Some of the more useful ones include analyzing the stock market or calculating mortgage rates.

For example, to compare Microsoft, Google, and Apple, type MSFT, APL, GOOG into WolframAlpha’s search box:

WolframAlpha

The complete output from this query includes several pages of data and graphs – recent returns, relative price history, performance comparisons including bonds and T-bills, projections, mean-variance optimal portfolio, expected annual return, and volatility.

How about that new house? Can you afford it? Type mortgage $300,000, 6.5%, 30 years into the search box:

WolframAlpha

In addition to the monthly payment and interest rate, you get the total interest paid and nice graphs showing payment balances over time.

Getting Medical Data

WolframAlpha provides a number of interesting medical statistics including body measurements, physical exercise, diseases, mortality, medical tests, and medical computations.

For example, to determine the benefits of running 30 minutes for a 35-year-old female, type running 30min 35yo female into the search box:

WolframAlpha

In addition, WolframAlpha gives you speed, pace, distance, time, and race predictions.

Or, how about cholesterol information for a 45-year-old male. Type: cholesterol 45yo man into the search box:

WolframAlpha

Getting Scientific Data

By now, you’ve probably got a good sense of how to get useful information from WolframAlpha. If you’re a scientist or a student of science, you’ve got many, many more options. Table 1 summarizes some of the example areas you can query for physics, chemistry, astronomy, earth sciences, and life sciences.

Table 1. A sample of WolframAlpha scientific areas available to query

Physics Chemistry Astronomy Earth Sciences Life Sciences
Mechanics Chemical Elements Star Charts Geology Animals & Plants
Electricity & Magnetism Chemical Compounds Solar System Geodesy Paleontology
Optics Ions Stars Earthquakes Genomics & Molecular Biology
Thermodynamics Chemical Quantities Exoplanents Tides  
Relativity Chemical Solutions Galaxies Atmospheric Sciences  
Nuclear Physics Chemical Thermodynamics Astrophysics    
Quantum Physics Chemical Formulas Observatories    
Particle Physics 3D Structure Satellites    

Writing Mathematical Queries

Given that WolframAlpha is derived from the Mathematica computer program, it’s not surprising that the most sophistication and breadth of query capabilities are mathematical.

You’ve already seen some simple mathematical queries.  Here are some more complex examples:

  1. Factor a polynomial: factor 2x^5 – 19x^4 + 58x^3 – 67x^2 + 56x – 48
     
  2. Compute the properties of a polyhedron: dodecahedron
     
  3. Calculate a derivative: derivative of x^4 sin x
     
  4. Compute a truth table: P && (Q || R)
     
  5. Compute an integral: integrate sin x dx from x=0 to pi

WolframAlpha

This visual representation of an integral should be a tremendous asset to calculus students. In addition to calculus, WolframAlpha supports algebra, geometry, number theory, discrete mathematics, applied mathematics, logic and set theory, mathematical functions, and advanced mathematics.

Exporting Results

You can export WolframAlpha’s results as a Mathematica file or as a PDF by clicking links in the lower right of the search results.

Text results are rendered as images, so you can’t simply copy cell data and paste it into a Microsoft Office or OpenOffice spreadsheet or database. You can temporarily turn the images back into text – but if you do, they will lose their cell formatting.

Here’s how to get WolframAlpha data into a spreadsheet:

  1. Paste the text data into Microsoft Word or a similar word processor. Use Find and Replace All to convert the | characters into Tabs. Enter | in the find field and enter ^t in the replace field.
  2. Copy the edited text and paste it into the spreadsheet. It will automatically distribute itself into a series of cells. If you’re using a spreadsheet or database that doesn’t handle copy/paste well, import the tabbed text file.

According to PC World, the yet-to-be-released Wolfram Alpha Professional will have a direct Excel export feature for a small license fee. Another feature of the Professional edition will be the option to cross-reference your private data with knowledge engine results.

Finding the Easter Eggs (Ah, yes…)

Stephen Wolfram and his team built WolframAlpha with a sly chuckle. There are some whimsical “Easter eggs” (hidden responses in the computational engine’s database) that will put a grin on your face – if you catch the cultural references.

Here’s a fun one. Type What is the meaning of the universe? into the search box:

WolframAlpha

Any self-respecting geek will recognize this reference to Douglas Adams’ SF novel, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The supercomputer Deep Thought – specially built for the purpose of answering this Ultimate Question – computes and checks its answer for seven and a half million years. And yes, it turns out to be 42.

Unfortunately, The Ultimate Question itself is unknown.

Ben Parr at Mashable has collected 20 of the most popular WolframAlpha Easter eggs. For a good laugh (and, in some cases, a test of your cultural prowess), try these out:

What is your name?
What’s the speed of an unladen swallow?
Hello
How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?
How to cook a Welshman?
Where am I?
Why did the chicken cross the road?
What’s the answer to life?
P = NP
I can’t let you do that, Dave
(This is WolframAlpha’s response when there’s too much server traffic.)
How long is a piece of string?
How much wood could a woodchuck chuck?
What do men/women want?
Where’s Wally?
Where did I put my keys?
Where the hell is Matt?
Are you a PC (or Mac)?
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
When is Judgment Day?
Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?

Programming WolframAlpha

Web developers and programmers have several options ranging from simple JavaScript to render the WolframAlpha search box on a web site; toolbars and gadgets to download; and a full Application Programming Interface (API).

The API lets you build a mashup, interface with AJAX or Flash, or add application code in almost any programming or scripting language using a web service.

To use the API, you must first request a WolframAlpha API application ID http://www.wolframalpha.com/apiapplication.html

Problem Reports

Like any new piece of software, not all users are satisfied with the features and usability of the WolframAlpha product. CNET did a poll of its readers shortly after WolframAlpha was released in May 2009. Asked to judge how happy they were with the outcome of their searches, readers gave Wolfram Alpha an average score of 3.55, with 1 being "most satisfied" and 5 being least.

WolframAlpha is something entirely new – it doesn’t replace Google, but complements it. With subsequent releases, it is likely to become an integral web component.

Based on a small sample of 1,459 responses, the CNET report concludes that, “readers were dissatisfied with Wolfram Alpha’s ability to produce results for anything outside of a relatively narrow set of queries related to math, science, or statistics. Forty percent said they would not recommend Wolfram Alpha to friends, while 28 percent thought it was only appropriate for ‘serious data nerds.’”

It‘s likely that a similar poll – if conducted using a sample of scientists, mathematicians and engineers – would yield significantly different (and much more favorable) results. This isn’t surprising given that parent company Wolfram Research is the developer of Mathematica – heavily used by universities and scientific research facilities. The company has many experts in sophisticated math and science topics, so you’d expect that results for those types of queries produce far more useful answers.

WolframAlpha is something entirely new – it doesn’t replace Google, but complements it. With subsequent releases and a growing database, it is likely to become an integral web component in computational research and analysis.