May 19th, 2009 by Potato

Stephen Wolfram is a smart, smart guy, earning a PhD in particle physics by age 20 and writing the popular Mathematica computational engine. Personally, I have more experience with MATlab and Maple, but there were many lonely nights doing physics problem sets when I’d sneak over to the Integrator to help me solve an integral (I’m terrible at integrals — I think it’s why I ended up in the “softer” side of physics/biophysics).

Seven years ago he came out with a book, A New Kind of Science (abbreviated NKS). It was a big, big book. I started reading it, but the first few sections were on cellular automata and chaos theory, stuff I had already done a bit of work on in my undergrad. From the tone of the narration, it seemed like he was making a big huge deal over something that I had worked with a fair bit on my own in undergrad, and moreover had already made its way into the popular media, and I got turned off. I’m a little ashamed to say I never even tried to pick the book up again, but in the process of getting the PDF version (which I’ve since lost), I signed up for his NKS mailing list.

Then a few days ago I got an email announcing the launch of Wolfram|Alpha. The email was lengthy, but aside from talking about vast possibilities and universal computing, I didn’t see exactly what this “killer app” of NKS did. I pretty much ignored it due to the grandiose, hyperbolic tone:

If one looks at Wolfram|Alpha today, much of what it computes is
firmly based on OKS (the “Old Kind of Science”), and in this
sense Wolfram|Alpha can be viewed as a shining example of what
can be achieved with pre-NKS mathematical science.

“Old Kind of Science”?!

…Anyway, as it turns out Alpha is a bit like Google, in that you type in a question and get answers. Unlike Google it’s not a search engine — instead of directing you to pages where you might get an answer, it tries to answer the question for you directly. So if you want to say, find out the interest you would pay on a mortgage, you could just ask it.

Unfortunately it’s still a little shaky on that front. I tried “mortgage interest paid principal=$300000 interest=3% 25 year amortization” and it wouldn’t go, but just “25 year amortization” brought up the calculator. You can also try other queries like “Canada oil exports” to see the 2005 figure, or “moon phase” to see the phase of today’s moon. So far none of that really impressed me much — I doubt it would make me visit Wolfram|Alpha ahead of Google or Wikipedia. “Next solar eclipse” was neat though, not only showing the date of the next eclipse, but also a little picture of the places on earth it would be visible from (the path of the eclipse). “Next total solar eclipse Canada” tells me that we’ll have to wait until April 8, 2024 until the next total solar eclipse comes through Canada. Clicking on the boxes gets you “copyable plaintext” which is kind of neat, but an extra step from just having copyable text to begin with.

So hey, give it a whirl, but to an end user who doesn’t care enough to get blown away by the computational algorithms underlying it I’d hesitate to call it the killer app of a new kind of science.

One Response to “Wolfram|Alpha”

  1. nancy (aka moneycoach) Says:

    I dunno – for non-science types like me, it is as breathtaking as google was. Thanks for the find – I’ve given it a space on my safari toolbar. Blown away!