Saturday science subject: Wolfram|Alpha

What’s the distance from San Francisco to Tokyo? How many calories is 50 g of chicken plus 100 g of potatoes? What was the phase of the moon on October 14, 1066? What about the weather in LA on Jessica Alba’s 18th birthday? Stephen Wolfram’s computational knowledge engine finally launched late last night, and it can answer all of those questions—and many more.

Wolfram|Alpha is accessible free of charge at wolframalpha.com, and it can compute answers in a wealth of fields, from mathematics, chemistry, and physics to medicine, sports, and music. All you need to do is enter a question or equation in the search field and hit enter. The service is still a little slow at the moment, and getting a question to go through may involve some rephrasing or coaxing. Still, keep in mind the service actually computes answers on the fly, and it generates diagrams in many cases, too.

For an introduction to Wolfram|Alpha, you can check out Stephen Wolfram’s demo video and a visual gallery of examples. There’s also a variety of toolbars and gadgets, and for developers, Wolfram Research even offers an application programming interface that can tap into the service.

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    • Common Sensei
    • 12 years ago

    Here’s a mildly curious thing. W-A has bought into at least one bit of historical revisionism….

    W-A seems to not be aware that there was a “King Louis of England” who ran that country for nearly a year, buying the typical story that King John was directly succeeded by his son Henry III in 1216.

    King Louis was, however, proclaimed to be King in London in May of 1216 (with the nobles, the King of Scotland and much of the city of London paying homage at the ceremony), celebrated mass at St Pauls cathedral, he increased the size of his army, raised and collected taxes, etc. He was finally being defeated in 1217 by forces rallied by the Pope (who was, at the time of King John’s death, John’s overlord, which gave him an interest in restoring John’s line to the throne). That is what put King Henry III (or rather his family, as he was a child) in charge of the country—but not until 1217, not 1216, as some history books suggest.

    Louis never officially received the crown (but then again, neither did Edward V or Edward VIII, and no one disputes their kingship). Really, since the barons first backed Louis and then were paid or cajoled mostly by the Pope into backing Henry III, it just convenient for them to forget about King Louis. Still everyone was certain he was King of England until the retcon hit.

    • Common Sensei
    • 12 years ago

    JdL You need to realize that there is *no* scientific debate on the question of whether the Earth is less than 20,000 years old. None. To suggest that different views of science lead to a different “scientific” conclusion on this point is wrong. That conjecture (to elevate its status by even using the word “conjecture”) does not fit the data we have.

    From a scientific point of view, the *only* theory that fits the data we have is that age of the Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old and the universe 13-14 billion years old.

    Different lines of though from non-scientific sources may dispute this, but they can only do so if their argument is relatively free of objectively verifiable facts. In order words, it ain’t science at all.

      • _Sigma
      • 12 years ago

      Well said.

    • tygrus
    • 12 years ago

    Q. How many spanners in a sidchrome tool kit ?
    A. Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input.

    Q. can i donate money to WolframAlpha ?
    A. Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input.

    Q. Can WolframAlpha use a shorter URL ?
    A. Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input.

    🙂

    • fantastic
    • 12 years ago

    I’ve tried it a few times. Unless I use one of the examples I usually get “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input.” I get much better information from Wikipedia and Google. Then some of the results you do get from Alpha, reference Wikipedia. Skip the middleman…

    • JdL
    • 12 years ago

    delete please

    • shank15217
    • 12 years ago

    I tried some questions that seemed like the thing this engine could do and it fell flat on its face.

    What are the closest cities within 500 miles of Washington, DC with a population greater than 200,000?

    What is the second highest point on Earth?

    If this is anything more than a knowledge engine I didn’t notice….

    • evermore
    • 12 years ago

    What “computing” exactly is being done when you ask the distance from point A to point B? Or the weather on a particular date? Even calculating the calories in a meal doesn’t sound like much more than a table lookup. This sounds like a useful scientific calculator merged with an almanac and encyclopedia. Mostly a novelty with usefulness for people who don’t feel like working an equation themselves.

    • GFC
    • 12 years ago

    Hehe, the first thing I asked was “What is the meaning of life?” Well the answer is… 42! Take that!

    But really, then I tried to tap into the potential, just copy & pasted a formula from my maths homework, well guess what? – It spew out the answer.
    I can tell you, this engine is going to change my life. ^^

    • ludi
    • 12 years ago

    Someone needs to get these guys a better marketing concept. “Wolframalpha.com” is too long and very easy to typo.

      • SomeOtherGeek
      • 12 years ago

      yea, it should have been wtf.com

      • khands
      • 12 years ago

      §[<http://www.wra.com<]§ ftw, unless it's taken already.

        • dmitriylm
        • 12 years ago

        You really couldn’t check?

    • anand
    • 12 years ago

    This site has a odd tendency to cause my Firefox to freeze up and require killing from the task manager. I haven’t been able to reproduce the problem in IE8 or in Chrome. I have a few extensions installed so maybe one of them is responsible, but this is the only website where I’ve seen the problem consistently.

    That aside, this is a pretty cool concept. Probably not something I’ll use multiple times everyday like Google, but I think for a certain subset of searches it will be far more useful than anything else.

      • _Sigma
      • 12 years ago

      Ok I’m glad I’m not just imaging it! I have this problem under FF

      • Meadows
      • 12 years ago

      It didn’t do that for me, but after waiting for just a short while Firefox reported that there was a script that didn’t run or respond, so I just closed that and I got what I asked for anyway.

    • Buzzard44
    • 12 years ago

    It’s pretty neat, but there’s still a lot it can’t do (of course, there’s so surprise there).

    I asked it who was the king of England in 1762, and it told me.
    I asked what shin splints are, and what oral sex was, and it had no idea.

    For the most part, I’d say it’s an encyclopedia integrated with a calculator.

      • Meadows
      • 12 years ago

      Well, if you had to learn about oral sex there, you’d be in trouble anyway.

        • Buzzard44
        • 12 years ago

        While this is true, I must credit early Wikipedia to a portion of my initial sexual education.

        …Leave me alone, I was only 12 or 13.

          • derFunkenstein
          • 12 years ago

          wikipedia coexisted with 8-tracks? I thought for a minute there you might have been my dad.

            • Buzzard44
            • 12 years ago

            Nah, I’m only 20.

            I just use outdated tech because it’s free or cheap. I don’t like spending money because I’m paranoid that I’ll end up poor because inflation will devalue all my money I have saved and I won’t be able to find a job. Therefore I try to keep cash reserves as high as possible. And that’s why I have an 8 tracks instead of a surround sound system.

            • ludi
            • 12 years ago

            Craigslist, my man. You don’t have to shell out a fortune to have a working CD player and receiver/amp.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 12 years ago

            If you’re worried about extreme inflation I hope cash reserves was just a simplification, cash is the worst thing to have when inflation is high.

            • Buzzard44
            • 12 years ago

            I suppose “highly liquid stores of value” would have been a more appropriate term.

            The government also has TIPS, which are treasury inflation protection securities. They seem pretty neat. Your principal adjusts with the CPI, and you get a little interest. However, it’s still not total inflation protection, because you have to pay taxes on the “profit”, even though most of that profit is just inflation adjustment.

            I feel like I should say something about Wolfram here…

            • Meadows
            • 12 years ago

            Based on the tech and your name, I thought you were 44 years old when you joined. 😉

            • derFunkenstein
            • 12 years ago

            it’s like bhtooefr had a brother.

      • ssidbroadcast
      • 12 years ago

      Yeah, it also doesn’t know how Babby is formed.

        • khands
        • 12 years ago

        It probably doesn’t know what a “Babby” is, so that might be part of the problem.

    • Taco
    • 12 years ago

    Huh funny, I just asked it “who is a stupid little baby with no understanding of the world around him” and it came back “JdL” so it seems like it’s working fine

    • JdL
    • 12 years ago

    I had to ask, “How old is the earth” and got the answer of 4+ billion years. Ridiculous. This isn’t a tool. It’s propaganda. If there is ANY question with many debatable (or highly debated) answers, it should show all the answers and let the user make judgments for himself.

    Our whole purpose for asking questions is ultimately so we can relate to other people. We can’t do that if all we drink is kool aid.

    —————— EDIT: Some clarification…

    ALL of the responses to my initial post are ridiculously off point. I’m actually a little shocked that no one was able to read past the first 15 words or so.

    My point was, ANY question — religious, political, social, economic, etc. — that has multiple answers which have been debated, those answers should be presented to the asker of the question.

    It would be a much better service if I could get answers from all party lines, multiple religious perspectives, etc. Even basic stuff like math (2+2) can be debated if you take into account multiple dimensions or other abstract mathematical concepts.

    ———- EDIT #2: I recant

    So it turns out Wolfram intends to be a resourceful personality (an artificial entity), rather than a pure reference tool. For example, try typing in “What is your name?” See these links:

    §[<http://mashable.com/2009/05/17/better-wolfram-easter-eggs/<]§ §[<http://mashable.com/2009/05/17/wolfram-easter-eggs/<]§ With that in mind, I take back everything I said. :-) It's one thing to claim to be a resource for unbiased knowledge, it's another thing to actually have your own perspective and personality. In that sense it's very cool.

      • Meadows
      • 12 years ago

      So you think young-Earth creationists are right when we have scientific evidence against them?
      I’m not sure I fully grasp your point against the planet’s age.

        • 0g1
        • 12 years ago

        There’s scientific evidence against 4 billion+ years too. Not to mention evolution just doesn’t make sense like the Big Bang Theory. You should do some more reading because I think pretty much everything the Bible says can be backed by science including 7 thousand year old Earth age.

          • Meadows
          • 12 years ago

          You should read more about endogenous retroviruses then, because if you pay enough attention, they practically prove evolution. Along with a number of other things more human-centered, including fish oil theories, “swimming babies” or hiccup research.

          • Byte Storm
          • 12 years ago

          Yes, because saying there IS evidence, but then not providing even a snippet of said evidence, really warms a person to your position.

          • PFarkas
          • 12 years ago

          Picture or it’s not true!

          • A_Pickle
          • 12 years ago

          Because there is evidence “against” the 4+ billion year scientifically-postulated age of the Earth does not necessarily mean that the Earth is 6,000 years old.

          Added to that, the 6-10,000 year “age” of the Earth that some Christians take as truth was basically decided upon by James Ussher in 1650, where he “calculated” the date of creation to be on the 23rd of October, 4004 B.C.

          How that’s more credible than modern techniques which employ things like radiocarbon dating (warning: there are many, many, many more methods of dating objects) or a theory that’s peer-reviewed as opposed to relying on calling the entire scientific community “biased”… I dunno.

          But sure, there’s evidence…

            • 0g1
            • 12 years ago

            The “scientific community” is composed of creationists and evolutionists. In fact some of the most famous scientists like Isaac Newton are creationists. §[<http://www.christiananswers.net/q-eden/edn-scientists.html<]§ I spent last night watching youtube about ERV's. Quite interesting because what looks like virus RNA/DNA is copied into our DNA and chimp/gorilla DNA. However, there is some that is in the chimps/gorillas that aren't in ours (which doesn't support evolution but you could say that somehow it deteriorated by time or that both these animals contacted the virus and we didn't). Basically, the creationist stance is that God designed our DNA's to have this data that is the same as virus data and put it in a certain spot so that it works correctly. And it isn't junk data, but actually useful. While we know some of this DNA data is useful, we know little about it and cannot prove that all of it is useful. Therefore, you cannot prove that it was put there by a virus even though it looks like a virus.

            • A_Pickle
            • 12 years ago

            Firstly, it’s completely understandable that Isaac Newton was a “creationist,” given that his life’s work and contribution to science occurred /[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_Genome_Project<]§ Science actually hypothesizes that there are some portions of DNA that... aren't useful at all. We'll need to sequence those portions just to be sure, and indeed, not all of the Human Genome has been sequenced - but according to Wikipedia, 92-ish percent has been sequenced. g[

      • just brew it!
      • 12 years ago

      4+ billion is a reasonable answer given the available evidence. Be careful who you accuse of “drinking the kool-aid”…

      • ImSpartacus
      • 12 years ago

      I try to be open minded, but I cannot believe that the Earth is only thousands of years old.

      This search engine should represent the majority opinion on debated subjects.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 12 years ago

        yeah, mob rule!

        Although I do agree that the Earth is probably 4+ billion years old. Not all Christians are Biblical literalists, especially when it comes to “how long is a day”.

          • Irascible
          • 12 years ago

          To take it a step further, most Christian literalists don’t know what their Bible really says. If they did then they’d know that absolutely no where in the Bible does it say the Earth was created 6000 years ago. It in fact makes it very clear in Ezekiel that it existed _[

      • Buzzard44
      • 12 years ago

      Well, I think that it should note that the subject is debated, and that 4.5 billion years, the number given, is an estimate based on scientific evidence and theories.

      Disregarding Christian beliefs, the fact of the matter is that the 4.5 billion years time frame given is still a very rough estimate, and future technologies/discoveries may prove that number to be very inaccurate. Wolfram should state theories as theories, not facts.

        • Meadows
        • 12 years ago

        Then the resulting fact of 4-PLUS billion years seems accurate enough after all.

        • _Sigma
        • 12 years ago

        Scientific theories should never be presented as facts and Wolfram Alpha isn’t presenting it like that, I don’t think. Theories are a “as it stands, with the evidence we have, this is how we think it works.”

        It’s the media that presents scientific theories as fact.

          • Kurotetsu
          • 12 years ago

          l[

          • MadManOriginal
          • 12 years ago

          It’s also ass-backwards people with an anti-science agenda who try to twist what ‘theory’ means to suit their own needs.

      • indeego
      • 12 years ago

      Seriously, I just made up a religion that said the earth is one day old. wtf, petition timeg{

        • Buzzard44
        • 12 years ago

        Oh come on, do you think I was born yesterday?!

        </corny joke>

        Am I allowed to lol at myself?

          • zima
          • 12 years ago

          (trying to be serious ;p )

          You wouldn’t know the difference anyway if you would be created with all the memories of the “past”.

          …though of course you realise the concept is idiotic. Too bad most other mythologies aren’t as readily disregarded…

          WHEN WILL HUMANITY LEARN? For who knows how many thousands of years new mythologies regularly replace old ones (relegated soon afterwards to the realm of fairytales, and eventually forgotten), yet the obvious conclusion about new ones never clicks… :/

            • A_Pickle
            • 12 years ago

            WHAT?!? I still believe in Harry Potter.

        • BoBzeBuilder
        • 12 years ago

        I want to be the prophet. I asked firstr[<.<]r

          • zima
          • 12 years ago

          Good thing the messiah part isn’t taken; and I even have Jesus-like hair and beard (well, at least from europe-centric depictions). Nore: similarities of story/etc. WILL end here (well, ok, I might too have some whores around)

      • Common Sensei
      • 12 years ago

      It seems likely that the *only* people who are going to go to Wolfram | Alpha to ask the age of the Earth are going to be people who want to know the age science gives. Anyone who wants the biblical answer likely already learned it elsewhere and, really, should recognize that technologists tend to like science.

      We don’t come to your church and demand that your pastor acknowledge both sides of the so-called “controversy” in his sermons, so why come to a math and science based search engine and ask them to represent the anti-scientific point of view?

        • JdL
        • 12 years ago

        People view “science” differently. If it weren’t for the different religious / ethical perspectives behind the theories, we would not have many of the discoveries we have today.

          • Meadows
          • 12 years ago

          You do realise that most of the world’s advances were opposed by the (then-popular) christian church, right? Very few were endorsed.

            • JdL
            • 12 years ago

            Dude, you’re proving my point. No organization should be allowed to dictate the world’s knowledge. Yet they all need to take part in it. This is not a religious debate.

            • Meadows
            • 12 years ago

            Conflict is not “taking part”, and conflict is exactly what’s between science and religion. One of those will come first – and if you ask me, any religion which attempts to “correct” science is not a good religion.

            • JdL
            • 12 years ago

            A good system would answer the question by describing the conflict.

            • Meadows
            • 12 years ago

            So instead of getting the answer you were looking for, the system would explain to you how much science and religion disagree?
            I don’t call that good.

            • just brew it!
            • 12 years ago

            Except that people typing a query like that into a search engine like WolframAlpha are probably not looking for a discussion of the conflict, they are looking for the current “scientifically generally accepted” answer. If you want all points of view, no matter whether they are mainstream or not, use Google instead…

            Perhaps a good compromise would be to provide the generally accepted answer, with a link to additional references which discuss things in more detail.

            • _Sigma
            • 12 years ago

            There isn’t any conflict in how old the earth is. Scientific methods show it to be 4+ billion years old.

            It is religious groups that go “oh hey, lets disagree with this as it doesn’t fit scripture!” They then presume that their disagreement with good scientific data/methods should be considered scientific debate, even though their disagreement resolves around non scientific “proof”.

            You first example (regardless of your later “clarification”) is a moot and incorrect.

            l[< People view "science" differently. <]l That's the thing though, science at its fundamental core is based on this: §[<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science#Scientific_method<]§ You don't start with an answer and look for evidence to support it whilst ignoring the contradictory evidence like religion does. I[If it weren't for the different religious / ethical perspectives behind the theories, we would not have many of the discoveries we have today.]I I would love an example of this. As has been pointed out a few times already (and which I reiterate), science and religion have not gotten along very well. I am unaware of any scientific progress that, without religion, would not exist.

            • Kharnellius
            • 12 years ago

            Good post. :tup:

            • Meadows
            • 12 years ago

            g{

            • MadManOriginal
            • 12 years ago

            Stylistically maybe not, at least in terms of ideas if not execution, but advances in materials that make new or different buildings possible are based upon science.

            • A_Pickle
            • 12 years ago

            g[

            • eitje
            • 12 years ago

            q[

      • SomeOtherGeek
      • 12 years ago

      I asked it, “Who is God?” and having taking a long time, it said, “Stephen Wolfram”. Does that answer your question?

        • JdL
        • 12 years ago

        LOL — seriously good one 🙂

      • cjava
      • 12 years ago

      Get off my intarwebs!

        • JdL
        • 12 years ago

        Just close your browser. You won’t see me any more. 🙂

      • blastdoor
      • 12 years ago

      Maybe you should go make your own website that gives you only the answers you want to read.

        • JdL
        • 12 years ago

        Read the rest of my post.

      • JdL
      • 12 years ago

      ALL of the responses to my initial post are ridiculously off point. I’m actually a little shocked that no one was able to read past the first 15 words or so.

      My point was, ANY question — religious, political, social, economic, etc. — that has multiple answers which have been debated, those answers should be presented to the asker of the question.

      It would be a much better service if I could get answers from all party lines, multiple religious perspectives, etc. Even basic stuff like math (2+2) can be debated if you take into account multiple dimensions or other abstract mathematical concepts.

        • Nitrodist
        • 12 years ago

        I just thought that it was a funny troll.

          • BenBasson
          • 12 years ago

          I’m pretty sure that it is, and continues to be.

        • blastdoor
        • 12 years ago

        “ANY question — religious, political, social, economic, etc. — that has multiple answers which have been debated, those answers should be presented to the asker of the question.”

        Every religious, political, social, economic, etc question of any interest has multiple answers which have been debated. That is the nature of every interesting question that has ever been asked. Questions that have only one answer that is immediately obvious aren’t the kinds of questions that most people are going to be turning to Wolframalpha (or google or anything else).

        I don’t think the purpose of a site like this is to give a dissertation on every oddball answer to a question that anybody has ever come up with. If I ask for the circumference of the Earth, I don’t want to read about how some people think the Earth is flat, I just want my darn question answered.

      • My Johnson
      • 12 years ago

      I got your point. But I watched the demo video and I noticed that the engine also provides wikipedia links for further research/discussion. I figure that you may have overlooked the shortcut the Wolfram researchers took in regard to the question you pose.

      • Krogoth
      • 12 years ago

      Successful troll is successful.

      • Kharnellius
      • 12 years ago

      Nothing like turning a thread into another religious debate. Woot!

    • MadManOriginal
    • 12 years ago

    I read the title as ‘Wolfman Alpha’ and since it is a science subject post was expecting something different 😮

    • just brew it!
    • 12 years ago

    Looks like they’re a bit overloaded at the moment. I tried asking it a question, and got this:
    §[<http://justbrewit.net/trstuff/alpha.png<]§ Guess I'll try playing with it later.

      • ssidbroadcast
      • 12 years ago

      Quick, climb into the red server room and pull the blades out–slowly.

        • Krogoth
        • 12 years ago

        “I am losing my mind.”

        “I can feel it Dave.”

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