Wolfram Alpha: Search Engine or Answer Calculator?

Category: Search-Engines

Untold millions use Google as their go-to search engine, but there are others you should know about. Among all the “other” search engines, one of my favorites is Wolfram|Alpha. It’s not really a search engine in the traditional sense; it’s more like an “answer calculator.” Wolfram|Alpha surfaces online through licensing deals that make its technology available through Google Search, Bing, Siri, and other well-known brands. But it's best to experience it directly. Here’s a look at what Wolfram|Alpha is, and can do for you...

What is Wolfram|Alpha?

Unlike most search engines, Wolfram|Alpha doesn't scan the Web, and build a searchable data base of the world's knowledge. Instead, Wolfram|Alpha uses "computational intelligence" to make sense of available data, and answer questions with proprietary algorithms and AI technology. Let's take a look at how it differs from a traditional search engine, and what kind of questions it can answer.

If, for example, you enter “New York Yankees” into Google Search, you'll get over 128 million results. Each result is a web page that contains the search query, or part of it. Any given "hit" may be exactly what you’re seeking or it may be wildly off-base. In contrast, “New York Yankees” entered in Wolfram|Alpha starts a process that assembles a single page of facts about the team. If the particular fact(s) you’re seeking are not there, you can refine the search with additional terms. You can also sort the columns of information when indicated.

"Wolfie" can produce answers to complex queries like “last pro baseball game with more than 9 stolen bases.” This query involves a sport, date, and statistic as its variables. (The result is “San Diego Padres at Florida Marlins, Thursday, May 18, 2000.”) But it's not all about sports. One example that got a chuckle from me was "How many chickens can fit in a Boeing 747?" I'll let you find the answer to that one.

Wolfram|Alpha - Answer Calculator

Obviously, such a tool can be indispensible to people who must come up with this sort of trivia in real time. But there are dozens of specialized searches, calculations, and conversions that it can do for you. Many categories of examples are available to help you understand the functions and uses of Wolfram|Alpha. Try exploring some of these and constructing your own queries:

  • Words & Linguistics (dictionary lookups, word puzzles, anagrams, emoticons),
  • Units and Measures (conversions, calculations, and comparisons)
  • People and History (genealogy, names, occupations, political leaders, historical events)
  • Household Science (everyday weather, astronomy, chemistry, biology or physics problems)
  • Money and Finance (stocks, mutual funds, futures, mortgages, currency)
  • Astronomy (planets, moons, comets, stars, pulsars, galaxies, nebulae)
  • Hobbies, Entertainment, Food & Nutrition, Statistics and many more.

Options and Operations

While Google has a limited number of operators to refine search queries, such as +, -, and quotes, Wolfie has a larger set of operators that help you specify what kind of results you want. For instance, “word” specifies that you want to know the uses of the following word, e. g., “word march” yields “march in protest” among other uses, and nothing about the month of March. Operators such as define, synonym, antonym, and even “Morse code for…” are available.

The "Surprise Me" link picks queries at random, and shows the results. My surprises included "recently released movies starring Brad Pitt," "spectral class of Barnard's star," and "people at the signing of the Declaration of Independence." The detailed answer to that last query was a surprise indeed. In addition to a list of the 56 signers, it returned their dates and places of birth, dates and places of death, leadership positions they held, and other tidbits.

Remember that this is a tool that eats facts and spits out information. So Wolfram|Alpha is a bit like a nerd at a cocktail party. It can tell you that it would take 4.39 years to reach Alpha Centauri (some 25.81 trillion miles away) if you were in a ship travelling at the speed of light. It knows who performed "Blinded By The Light" but not what songs are on the Billboard Top 40. It can answer "What song contains daniel is leaving tonight on a plane?" It knows that "Kenny Rankin" is a person's name, but not that he was a popular musician.

Every year, Wolfram|Alpha gets new capabilities, algorithms, and an expanding knowledgebase. Currently Wolfram|Alpha boasts over 10 trillion pieces of data from primary sources with continuous updating, and over 50,000 types of algorithms and equations. When I tried some of those queries 7 years ago, the answer was "Wolfram|Alpha doesn't understand your query."

Some features require a "Pro" subscription. For educators, Wolfram|Alpha Pro ($4.75/month) has a time-saving problem-generation function that creates math problems for students of various grade levels to solve. For students, Wolfram|Alpha Pro ($4.75/month) has a “step by step solutions” function that will solve those problems and “show your work.” That seems to be playing both sides of the street. (Kind of like using Wikipedia to write your term paper.)

Wolfram|Alpha is never going to be the dominant search engine on the web. But it’s specialized capabilities are worth bookmarking, and they will enrich more popular services such as Google Search, Siri, Alexa, and so on.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Try asking Wolfie a question, and post a comment below with something interesting that you learned!

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Most recent comments on "Wolfram Alpha: Search Engine or Answer Calculator?"

Posted by:

30 Apr 2019

It correctly identified the Elton John song despite the lyrics being ..."*travelling* tonight"... ;o)

I feel almost aggrieved that you're telling everybody about one of my long-cherished gems — one of my secret sources!

Well, the cat's out of the bag, I can wholly recommend Wolfram Alpha as a tool that becomes more and more useful, not only as it becomes more sophisticated with the passing years, but also as you find new ways of using it — it has changed how I think about information!

Posted by:

David Solomons
30 Apr 2019

Fascinating result on Wolfram for the question "what is the average age of death for humans" - I'm going to move to San Marino when I can LOL

Posted by:

30 Apr 2019

I wish I had this when I was in school!

Posted by:

30 Apr 2019

Just hit the download for Wolfram and Avast blocked it, said it was dangerous???

Posted by:

Paul S
30 Apr 2019

My query: "dependence of automobile aerodynamic drag on temperature and speed"
Reply was Wolfram|Alpha doesn't understand your query. Here are the weather data for your location.
I had hoped for more, maybe based on drag coefficient formula. How can the question be rephrased for a meaningful reply or am I asking too much?

Posted by:

30 Apr 2019

Brian: I'm not surprised that the "Download" for Wolfram was a virus. Wolfram|Alpha is a website, not a download!

Posted by:

John Angel
30 Apr 2019

Bob, following you now for years. In January I ourchased your current book on Backups and the 2 other books that came with it. ( It was around 17.00). Unfortunatelly I deleted the download and I'm wondering if there is a way of getting a copy.
I'm 72 years old and at times I do stupid things on computer like deleting files, and no I did not back it up. Thank you.

Posted by:

01 May 2019

Some years ago I found this difficult to use productively & today I try again with similar results.
I asked for:
'deflection in evenly loaded simply supported beam" I elected to use the civil engineering link.
Nothing then an answer in farads!!!
Can't be bothered, silly fact retrieval may be it's forte but I can't see anyone seriously using as a tool

Posted by:

Ian Glennie
01 May 2019

Bob, thanks for this useful information - as always. But what I would like to know is: Do you reply to poster's questions to their own email addresses, like John Angel's, above?

Posted by:

robert K,
02 May 2019

This is the most common answer I get to my questions: "Wolfram|Alpha doesn't understand your query."
I am not going to bother anymore.

Posted by:

Jay R
03 May 2019

I'm thinking that I will see what it knows about you, Bob. Maybe it will return some pallindromes if I only use your first name. It's always good to have some not so tachy emails.

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