Wolfram Alpha: The Answer Calculator

Category: Search-Engines

Among all the “other” search engines, my favorite is Wolfram Alpha. It’s not really a search engine in the traditional sense; it’s an “answer calculator.” Rarely in the news, Wolfram Alpha nonetheless exerts influence through licensing deals that make its technology available through Google Search, Bing, Siri, and other well-known brands. Here’s a look at what Wolfram Alpha has become since I last wrote about it in 2015...

Wolfram Alpha Redux

The Wolfram Alpha home page is full of categories that contain examples of “Wolfie’s” capabilities. This was a good idea because most people aren’t sure how to use a “computational knowledge engine.” A dive into the Sports and Games category makes Wolfie’s capabilities a bit clearer.

If you enter “New England Patriots” into Google Search, you'll get over 46 million results. Each result is a web page that contains the search query, or part of it. The page itself may be exactly what you’re seeking or it may be wildly off-base. In contrast, “New England Patriots” entered in Wolfie 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.

Wofie can produce answers to complex questions 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, 2006.”) But it's not all about sports. One example that got a chuckle from me was "How many baseballs fit in a Boeing 747?" I'll let you find the answer to that one.

Wolfram Alpha - Answer Calculator

Obviously, Wolfie 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)
  • Culture and Media (movies, tv programs, songs, fictional characters, mythology)
  • Money and Finance (stocks, mutual funds, futures, mortgages, currency)
  • Astronomy (planets, moons, comets, stars, pulsars, galaxies, nebulae)
  • Chemistry, Physics, Music, Health, Geography, Food, Weather 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.

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 ($4.00/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.)

Wolfie 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: The Answer Calculator"

Posted by:

19 Sep 2017

Unfortunately Wolfie could not handle my inquiry.
I'm having a sudden printer issue in Linux. The error message is: CUPS server error = broken pipe.

It just settled on a word like server or broken and gave dictionary definitions.

Posted by:

19 Sep 2017

Hi Bob - I have just asked Wolfie "what is CP/M?" [being an old timer]. It replied "Operating Systems Development of this topic is under investigation... Leave your email address to show your interest."

Wikipedia told me right away.

Perhaps not a fair question for a calculating engine, but it does have a section on Computing...

Posted by:

Louis Toscano
19 Sep 2017

I will support any alternative to Google, from which I removed my account for wanting too my personal information.

Posted by:

19 Sep 2017

Wow - I like this. Somehow I missed the original post in 2015, but today makes up for it. By tweaking the questions and refining the query you can come up with specific answers very quickly. Much better than Google and others for specific answers.

Posted by:

19 Sep 2017

Just curious as to what kind of tracking they do. I do not use Google anymore because of all the BS I get from them from searches and of course that is how they make their money, tracking people's searches, sending data to retailers, etc. and then bombarding your email and facebook with their crap.

Posted by:

19 Sep 2017

I accept that WA can answer simple queries, but there are a myriad other ways to do that. I tried two serious questions,
- one to do with a noted query in the text of a poem:
'which is correct, "beauty falls from the air" or "beauty falls from the hair'
- which WA did not understand, and stopped at "beauty is" returning a reference to some film called "Bella" - obviously it was unacquainted with Nashe's poem
- and one mathematical: " what is the value of pi in the equation: e**[(i)(pi)] +1 =0"
which WA again did not understand, and reduced just to the equation, saying it was true
Frankly I think one can do better.

Posted by:

19 Sep 2017

Sorry, left out a double quotation mark at the end of line 4 before the single quotation mark, but it was correct in the version submitted to WA

Posted by:

19 Sep 2017

I asked it 'are there other universes outside our universe?' but it said it didn't understand the question. Google had a more helpful answer: 'maybe'.

Posted by:

h m white
19 Sep 2017

As Louis said, I will support any search engine that replaces Google. It simply cannot bring up links to what I ask for. It tells me what I should have asked for. Example: Yesterday, I asked for "buzzing in the head". It brought up a page of "buzzing in my head phones". I did not ask for headphones. Its favorite trick is to bring up a whole page of Hollywood or sports stars just because they had names similar to a history or science topic that I asked for. Nothing comes that relates to anything I asked for.

Posted by:

19 Sep 2017

I have gotten so frustrated with Google myself.
to add to what h m white said, You have to ask for headphones then you would have gotten the answer for buzzing in the head. it really never
fails you ask for one thing and you get another thing........

Posted by:

19 Sep 2017

Just in case you were wondering, Wolfie calculates the number of monsters in Loch Ness as: 0 It goes on to explain that Scientific concesus is that all sitings are misidentifications or fraud.

And for you Monty Python fans that have always wanted to know the answer to the question asked of King Arthur by the guard at the Bridge Of Death:

What... is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

Wolfie: (assumes it is a European unladen swallow--shame on them) 25 mph (miles per hour)
then it provides a bunch of other information-- including the Monty python link.

Posted by:

Joe M
20 Sep 2017

Chalk another one up for the "anti-Google-ers".

I use either startpage.com, which uses google as the backend so they don't get my info (at least not attributed to me), or duckduckgo.com.

Posted by:

20 Sep 2017

Q: "how many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie pop?"

A: "3481"

Posted by:

Peter Oh
20 Sep 2017

I just asked for the protein content of adult dog food.
Simple enough you'd think?
WA did not understand the question.
AS per my last attempts with WA a complete fail!

Posted by:

20 Sep 2017

I like Google search and use it all the time without much problems... It does come up with movies and such when I want just the definition of a word.
I tried the "buzzing in the head" and it came right up with:
Tinnitus is a ringing, buzzing, swishing, clicking, or other type of noise that seems to originate in the ear or head rather than from an external source. Tinnitus is not an illness itself but a symptom of other conditions, such as: ... Brain tumors or other tumors near the ear.Sep 11, 2017"
So my guess is it depends on what you may have been searching for previously... like Headphones maybe :)

Posted by:

Bill C
20 Sep 2017

While HEAVY with ads, I always use "Dogpile". Am I the only one?

Posted by:

top squirrel
20 Sep 2017

To the guy who said he removed Google because it got too nosy:
DuckDuckGo is a search engine that does not keep a record of your searches, let alone sell your information (it doesn't even ask for any).
I still use Google because it owns YouTube, which is a great source of free music with many different performers, and much information. BUT you can set Google settings so that they will keep nothing of the YouTube selections you have listened to.

Posted by:

21 Sep 2017

Hey Bob,

It's "its", not "it's" in second to last sentence.
(...ITS specialized capabilities...)
Just saying.
I've learned ALOT from your newsletter.
Thank you!


Posted by:

Loren Rademacher
21 Sep 2017

I just asked "where in the celestial sphere is the vernal equinox" and got nothing useful. Bummer.

Posted by:

26 Sep 2017

Not a very widespread knowledge - I suspect it is only useful for very popular subjects. I just asked it about "opening leads in the card game of bridge" and got only video games as a category. Rewording it to "card game of bridge opening leads " produced nothing better. Not impressed, am I.

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