Fun with Wolfram|Alpha

Published on Sunday, June 10, 2012 in , , , ,

Wolfram|Alpha logoWolfram|Alpha is an amazing site, and I've already talked about it several times on Grey Matters.

In this post, we're going to take a closer look at Wolfram|Alpha, and see just how useful it is.

If you're new to Wolfram|Alpha, go to the link, and try clicking the Random button (lower right) one or more times. Once you've found a search that interests you, such as annual deaths from auto accidents in the Czech Republic, click the equals sign, and watch what happens.

If you've never used Wolfram|Alpha before, you might be expecting search results, but that's not what you get. Instead, Wolfram|Alpha analyzes your request and tries to give you the answer! For example, annual deaths from auto accidents in the Czech Republic results, we not only learn that there were an estimated 1,063 auto-accident-related deaths in 2006, but how many deaths per day is the average, and even a graph showing that such deaths declined significantly from 2003 to 2006.

Wolfram|Alpha's biggest strength is its ability to understand a request and give you the results directly. Initially, Wolfram|Alpha got many bad reviews because people thought of it as a search engine, but the reviews improved dramatically, once people started understanding its true nature. Its own example pages are a good place to start learning about its capabilities.

Sometimes, Wolfram|Alpha's ability to understand plain language seems almost magical, but you need to remember that it's a computer program. Instead of being frustrated that it doesn't seem to give you the results you want, try and meet it halfway by learning how to make your input clearer. The article 7 easy ways to get more from Wolfram Alpha is a great place to start.

You can also find regular uses for it in posts such as 10 Search Terms To Put Wolfram Alpha To Good Use Everyday and 10 tips to harness the hidden potential of Wolfram Alpha. There are plenty of other similar articles on the web, as well.

As with anything you start learning, you'll learn more quickly if you also have fun with it. Sure, you can have Wolfram|Alpha work through formulas for you, but try changing each number in the formula, and see what effect it has on the end result. This way, you'll begin to better understand the formula (Hat tip to 25 Cutting-Edge Wolfram Alpha Tips for Serious Students for this tip). As I point out in my post Memorization VERSUS Understanding?!?, the more you understand, the less you have to memorize.

Speaking of having fun with Wolfram|Alpha, check out the WolframAlphaSecrets site. You'll find a good selection of Wolfram|Alpha's lesser-known abilities here, from the impressive flights overhead (Wolfram|Alpha link - click any flight name for even more details) to the humorous batman equation (Wolfram|Alpha link - you appreciation for this will, of course, depend on your favorite Batman logo).

Once you've got the basics down, you're learning from having fun, and possibly even using it to find needed answers, it's time to learn how to make it more accessible. There's already an amazing array of Wolfram|Alpha apps, plugins and addons just for that purpose. The apps even add handy features such as a complete history of your queries, and the ability to store favorite queries.

Probably the most jaw-dropping way of accessing Wolfram|Alpha is via Apple's Siri. By opening Siri and proceeding your request with the word Wolfram (tip: pronounce it Wolf-rum, not Wolf-ram), you can enter your queries verbally, almost like computer interactions on Star Trek! TAUW features a great article on 10 cool things you can do with Wolfram Alpha and Siri, and even posted a video of Siri and Wolfram in action (YouTube link):

The main limitation with Siri is that it can only be used on the iPhone 4S, at this writing. However, it is reported that Siri may be coming to the third-generation iPad as part of the upgrade to iOS 6.

Are you longing for a futuristic interface to Wolfram|Alpha, but don't have an iPhone 4S? How about handwriting your entry to Wolfram|Alpha? Yep, it's already possible, thanks to the Web Equation interface at VisionObjects.com. The following video shows how it is used, and will work with many touchscreen devices, as it doesn't require any special browser plug-ins:

The arrows at the top left of the Web Equation interface are undo and redo functions, very handy if you make mistakes.

The video creator mentions LaTeX, but doesn't explain much about it. LaTeX is a web standard developed to display math formulas more precisely on the internet. For example, instead of typing “the limit of sin(x) over x, as x approaches 0” and hoping your reader can see how that would usually be written, you can display it just as you would see it on paper, or in Wolfram|Alpha for that matter:

You can use the LaTeX code generated by the Web Equation interface in your a LaTeX editor, such as codecogs.com's online equation editor.

Have you found any uses for Wolfram|Alpha you'd like to share? I'd love to hear about them in the comments!

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1 Response to Fun with Wolfram|Alpha

6:24 PM

Great post! "Random" button is AWESOME! I never understood wolframalpha but I knew it was powerful. Now that I understand it, I'm anxious to start using it for what it was intended for.