So what is Wolfram|Alpha?

By Aditya Madanapalle | Published on 08 Jul 2009
So what is Wolfram|Alpha?


Wolfram|Alfa is a novel approach to search, and is self-described as a computational engine. First, we will get out of the way some misconceptions about Wolfram|Alfa, and what it is not. Wolfram|Alfa is not a contender for Google search, as they both work very differently, and are made for different purposes. Google is a search engine, that indexes the web, and brings up web pages relevant to the search string. Wolfram|Alfa is a factoid machine, it indexes a large number of facts and algorithms, then calculates or sums up this information in relation to the search string, and other parameters, including the time of the day, the day of the year, and the location of the searcher. Wolfram|Alfa is not a better way to search the web, in fact, Wolfram|Alfa has very little to do with the web at large. Wolfram|Alfa is a closed site, with all the information being curated internally, unless it is generated, as in a calculation search. Wolfram|Alpha can be used for a number of things, but mainly these involve cold, hard facts, or any kind of calculation or computation. Wolfram|Alfa deals with measurements, comparing quantities, or throwing up statistics relating to the search. Right now, Wolfram|Alfa does not seem very useful, and a lot of the output, including the calculations are already done by Google, before the search results, but it is a great toy to play around with.

Wolfram|Alfa is not a semantic search engine. It does not parse strings of text, and compute an output based on what it means. For example, a semantic search engine would parse the search string “Where can I watch Terminator Salvation?” and throw up results of Theatres near the location of the searcher, and show timings. This is one of the most basic semantic search operations, and Google does this to some extent, drawing the necessary geographic location from the searcher’s IP. Such a search is beyond the purview and scope of Wolfram|Alfa.

What is unique about Wolfram|Alfa is the way it draws in from a large pool of knowledge, and throws up facts and figures related to a search. To understand what Wolfram|Alfa does better, it is necessary to learn just a bit about the engine Wolfram|Alfa is based on. This engine is called Mathematica, and is a piece of work. Mathematica is an engine that collects data, understands it, co-relates it, and throws it back up with reference to parameters and aesthetics. This works with a wide range of data, including dates, statistics, mathematical operations and specific lines of information. The way Mathematica correlates, throws up, and graphs information, is what makes Wolfram|Alfa so novel and interesting. Mathematica is a stand-alone engine, which combines a software, a database, and a number of possible applications, and can be purchased for commercial use. Wolfram|Alfa is based on this engine, and there are plans for a commercial version of the search engine.

Ok, enough faff, let’s get to the good stuff. Put in any number, and Wolfram|Alfa throws up interesting things about it. Our fingers went over 969329648432 for some reason, and as things turn out, this is approximately (read the same order of magnitude as) the number of stars in the milky way, red blood cells in the human body, and the number of people who have ever lived. Interestingly, the prime factorisation is 2^4x283x214074569, which includes a rather large prime number. Great for such an obscure number, but Wolfram|Alfa unfortunately, does not throw up the same interesting titbits for something like “7”, a number about which Wikipedia has a lot to say. Another interesting thing we found is that when you search for bands or artists with spaces, you’ll get a timeline of the active careers of these musicians. Great to compare bands and eras. This is a great feature, but is a hit and miss affair. Any combination of Jimi Hendrix, Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Guns N Roses, RHCP, Green Day, Donovan, Elvis Presley does not work, but Moby, Prince, Cobain, Morisette throws up this timeline:



Asking “why does the sun rise in the east?” gives no meaningful answer, but “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” gives the second part of the tongue twister, along with a footnote “the paper "The Ability of Woodchucks to Chuck Cellulose Fibers" by P.A. Paskevich and T.B. Shea in Annals of Improbable Research vol. 1, no. 4, pp. 4-9, July/August 1995, concluded that a woodchuck can chuck 361.9237001 cubic centimeters of wood per day”. We could go on all day giving interesting little things that Wolfram|Alfa can do, the point is that it does this in a half-hearted manner. For a complete list, head over to this page.


Wolfram|Alfa is still very much in development, and as such cannot practically be used for too many things. The trillions of data entries it claims falls drastically short of the potential uses of such an application. Mathematica is a great engine, and can potentially be put to good use, but it is nowhere near public-ready. The list of things that you can do with Wolfram|Alfa, while being terribly long, still manages to miss out on a whole range of things that users might search for. More importantly, the parser, or the interpretation of search strings is seriously flawed, and can come up with answers in highly specific circumstances, for highly specific searches. The UI of the web page is a little buggy, and needs some ironing out. At the end of the day, the potential use of such an engine does not outweigh the benefits of something like Google. True, the traditional search engine directs you to a web page, but the said web page will have far more exhaustive information than Wolfram|Alfa shows up, even for mathematical data, which the engine is specially geared towards. Just compare searches for any single digit number in Google and Wolfram|Alfa and see for yourself. There are a few instances where an engine like Wolfram|Alfa can be of immense use, but there is simply not enough data quantified and curated. Since it is an engine throws up quantifiable data, we envision Wolfram|Alfa to one day come up with concrete answers to “What was the carbon footprint of producing Captain Planet?”



Aditya Madanapalle

email Protection Status