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WolframAlpha: A new tool for online research

Ever student knows that they can go to Wikipedia for an overview of a subject, that they can go to Google for a wide variety of perspectives and popular media,  Google Scholar for academic journal references, and Google Books for searching within books, both current and obscure.  The new Google Squared even organizes output into a table of key concepts to help you organize your research.

But there is a key weakness to all of these resources:  they are designed to point you to documents that might have the answer.   Google can do some simple calculations and conversion from the search box, but in general you end up with links to resources that MIGHT have the answer you are looking for.

An alternative to your normal searches

WolframAlpha is different; very different.   The goal of WolframAlpha is to give you the answer, whatever your question might be.  More interesting to the computer scientists is HOW it gives you the answer;  WolframAlpha computes it based upon models of different fields of knowledge that have been built into the engine.  “The vision seems to be to create a system which can do for formal knowledge (all the formally definable systems, heuristics, algorithms, rules, methods, theorems, and facts in the world) what search engines have done for informal knowledge (all the text and documents in various forms of media).

That’s nice, but what does it mean in practice?  Well, if you are studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics the engine can help you with your homework or verify your answers.  For example, I asked it “What is calcite”and was given the chemical formula and properties, structural diagram and even safety/toxicity. More interesting, it made the assumption that I was interested in the chemical calcite, but also offered, right at the top, the possibility that I wanted “a material or a mineral or a word instead”  Clicking on any of those alternatives changes the search and therefore the results.  Clicking on “a mineral” changes the display to include different properties that are more appropriate for geology than chemistry.

When it comes to mathematics and statistics, the engine will calculate complex formulas, graph equations and even, for some types of equations, show you the steps.  Social Science students can quickly find details about geography and socioeconomic statistics about the people who love there.  This data is available in many other places, but WolframAlpha puts it all into a single place and allows you to find the answer you need without searching through hundreds of unrelated facts.

What’s the catch?

There are always limitations to any tool, and WolframAlpha is no different.


  • Its subject areas are limited, although growing.  Since it is computing the answers, it needs a model and those take time to build.
  • Because the engine is calculating the answers, it works best for fields with definitive answers.  Philosophy, literature, religion, and historical interpretation are weak, through no fault of the designers.  If you want to know the author, publication date and any awards for “The Grapes of Wrath“, WolframAlpha can help.  If you want a plot summary, you are better off looking elsewhere.
  • Formulating your question can be tricky.  The examples page is your friend; it can both help you correctly state your question and perhaps lead you to questions you had not thought of yet. Pay particular attention to the ways in which formulas are expressed without special characters.

Using WolframAlpha in an academic setting

I would advise students to be careful when using the site for homework.  If you use the engine to calculate all of your statistics problems, you won’t understand the material and will likely fail exams where you have to do your own calculations.  Faculty are aware of the tool and will likely change their courses in response.  If, on the other hand,  you use the engine to check your answers, you can verify your own understanding of the material and help yourself when you get something wrong.

Another issue with using this tool for homework problems is that there are often several ways to solve a problem, and the way used by the Wolfram engine may not be the same as the way taught in your book or by your teacher.  Worse, if you ask the question wrong of the Wolfram engine, you may not get the actual answer.

On the FAQ page, WolframAlpha recommends citing information found via their engine.  In the case of information used in papers this is good advice.  If you use WolframAlpha to calculate what a car, bought for $2500 in 1950, would cost in today’s dollars, than the engine is calculating a new value for you and it should be cited as a primary source.

In the end, WolframAlpha is worth adding to your tool kit (one of many) but not a “get out of school free” card; you still have to know how to ask the right questions and understand the answers it gives you.

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20 Responses to “WolframAlpha: A new tool for online research”

  1. This post has served well to clarify several questions I had about Wolfram Alpha. It seems like maths homework blues is something of the past ;-)

  2. I’ve looked up the site and asked the question: ‘Who is Darth Vader’ and it didn’t had an answer. This tool stopped for me there. Sorry Wolframalpha, but you need to answer questions and you don’t know who Dart Vader is? Common, you can’t be focussing on computer nerds!

  3. Yes, I usually search on Google and Wikipedia. It’s really different. I bookmark it and used it. Thanks.

  4. Google and Wikipedia have really come in handy when having to look up things,I just wish I had this available when I was in school would have made things so much easier , like for projects and speeches.

  5. If only we had this 20 years ago I would have gotten better marks in school :) The stuff that we have now compared to back then is so amazing kids today are really lucky they an do so much

  6. Home work would have been a breeze when I was there if I had something like this on hand, but then again everyone one would have been a wizz at all home work for that matter.

  7. Seo83 says:

    Really WolframAlpha is also a pretty tool for online research. Mostly i use google and bing for this purpose. But its also too good..

  8. Cash Back says:

    I don’t see too many people using this instead of just Googling it…especially with a name like WolframAlpha. I guess there does need to be a search engine for pure facts, basically a wikipedia without the inconsistency.

  9. Kolorowanki says:

    It was really amusing when I found out that you can for example measure your own weight in pickles with wolfframalpha. It’s amazing, I hope google buys and develops it.

  10. Wolframalpha is good for academic search and it’s really different for Wikipedia. Thanks for information.

  11. Generic says:

    Yes, I also usually search on Google and Wikipedia. It’s really different. I bookmarked it and used it. Thanks.

  12. used tires says:

    One of the neat things I found about this Scientific search engine was that you can input salaries you would like to learn, and it will tell you what it takes to get there. Example type in: “$75,000/yr” and it is really cool what it returns in the results =D

    Till then,


  13. Mind Ruin says:

    Great tool, thanks Rebecca.

  14. The hype around Wolfram Alpha seems to have died doiwn quite a bit. I am interested to see how it fares in the longer term. Bing is impressive, but it’s local results for South Africa are poor, so it is Google all the way for me baby!

  15. ATV Auctions says:

    I like the concept of Wolfram Alpha, but I don’t think it will get much exposure. For one, it is a very difficult name to remember. So marketing will be a big challenge. Secondly, the information supplied is rather limited since it only reports actual facts.

  16. ATV Auctions says:

    Then again I guess this is a completely different beast than the typical search engine. So I guess a lot of people will still find this extremely useful.

  17. For Sale says:

    the article is awesome. leave it at that. gracias

  18. Here’s two good questions for Wolfram Alpha… one it could answer (but will it?) and one it can’t answer:

    Q1: How many letters are in the answer to this question?
    (Answer: Four)

    Q2: Will Wolfram Alpha answer ‘no’ to this question?

  19. kolorowanki says:

    Wonderful tools, thanks Rebecca.

  20. kolorowanki says:

    Wonderful tools, thanks Rebecca