WolframAlpha: a new way to search

Google has become so omnipresent as a search engine that we now use google as a verb in lieu of search.

But there’s a new kid on the block; Wolfram Alfa, well I say “new kid” it might be the most adult and grown up search engine we’ve ever seen.

3-D structure of ethanol
3-D structure of ethanol

My first degree was in science so the first thing I did was geek out on chemical formulae and structure diagrams. Entering a the chemical formula for ethanol gives a fact sheet of molecular weight, 3D structure, solubility, melting points, flash points and so on. The fact sheet can be downloaded, so this could be great for study notes.

I got a little geekier and tried “aldehyde dehydrogenase” as a search term. Nothing. So the database is not yet complete.

I tried a couple of technical terms from the world of computing I tried “IP” that was freaky, I got a definition plus details of my own IP address. I tried “http” nothing, I tried “meta data” and I got a reference to a river in Colombia.

I tried it on a few more cultural elements, it found with last years nobel prize winners (but not with only “nobel winners” as a search term), but couldn’t cope with Oscar winners.

Entering a person’s name give very basic data; name place and date of birth. But it gives exactly the same level of information for Paul Erdos, Rosalind Franklin and Pamela Anderson. You would discover that they were a mathmetician a chemist and an actrice respectively.

In contrast from Wikipedia you can learn that Erdos was incredibily prolific and collaborated with so many people on various mathmatical problems that there exists an “Erdos number” which like the more famous “6 degrees of separation” indicates how close you are as a mathematician to Erdos. You would learn from Wikipedia that it was Rosalind Franklin‘s x-ray crystallography data used by Watson and Crick to develop their model of DNA.

an example of the sources used by WolframAlpha
an example of the sources used by WolframAlpha

Most search engines work by spidering the web and analysing the link structure and and the user behaviour to deliver a best guess at the content you’re looking for.

WolframAlpha works differently; they go back to primary searches and presumably catorigorise this data directly to present you with a comprehensive result.

You can see which sources were used in compiling your result by clicking on “source information” at the bottom of your results page. The sources are clickable, but seem to take you to the home page not a page chosen on relevance so you’d still have some search to do.

This means it might have a different level of authority to the social media sites/searches which makes it interesting especially for people who need the right answer not the favourite answer. However it’s already getting some flack for being too “intelligent”, webomatica complained “I don’t like WolframAlpha because it makes me feel stupid” I suspect others will have the same sort of reaction and that this might become a “niche” search engine for experts in various science fields. And that might still be a good thing.

At this time it seems very much focused on the physical sciences, and although they say they’re aiming at “Everyone! Its goal is to bring expert-level knowledge to everybody.” That’s a grand ambition, however in my experience it’s really only experts who are interested in “expert-level” knowledge.

If I were studying a subject covered by WolframAlpha I’m sure I’d use it, the basic information is there, the downloadable pdf is great, and the reference list under the source information would be a great jump off point for futher research.

It remains to be seen just how mainstream this will become.


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