You may have heard of Wolfram Alpha, a self-proclaimed “knowledge engine” that, like the famous talking computers on Star Trek and in other science fiction, produces gobs of mathematical data and answers on the fly. Not surprisingly, Wolfram Alpha is an adaptation of the Mathematical software. A variety of sub-apps are also available, using the same data stored on Wolfram Alpha servers – there are course assistant apps for classes like Physics I and II, Astronomy, and Pre-Algebra.
But the main Wolfram Alpha app ($2.99 from the Google Play Store, Amazon AppStore, or from the iTunes App Store; available also on Kindle Fire and on the Nook) is actually a terrific tool that can be used for ESL, English, business, economics, and social science reference. It’s better than Wikipedia; sources for all the data are clearly noted at the bottom of each output, and can be confirmed with a click. Unlike Wikipedia, (where noted researchers may be forced to battle incorrect page edits by users named GreenWhistleMan99 and JellyBeanLisa), Wolfram Alpha requires all data, facts and figures be submitted with proof, references, authorities and/or methods.
Confused about the meaning of a word? Wolfram Alpha provides a detailed provenance, definition and pronunciation, as well as rhyming words, synonyms, and for fun, Scrabble score and related Crossword puzzle clues.”Trivia”, Wolfram Alpha explains, was a word first used in the Edwardian era, in 1902, and is a noun; “bursar,” it explains, is Medieval Latin, and was first used in 1587, but jumped in word frequency around 1800, and then became less popular after 1950.
Ask Wolfram Alpha about Berkshire Hathaway (Warren Buffett’s famous company), and the latest stock trade price appears – along with fundamental information, from its market cap to P/E ratio. Want to see how the company’s performed? A price history chart will let you look at trends; a candlestick chart is available, as well as selections that let you look at just last year, or last week.
Corporate finance not your thing? Wolfram Alpha can help you with personal finance, too – typing “mortgage 6%, 30 year, $130000″ will spit out calculations for that sample mortgage, including a full payment schedule.
Science data can also be generated rapidly. Ask Wolfram Alpha about earthquakes in Alaska; it’ll provide you with results and a local map; results can be keyed to look just at the last 2 months, or move up incrementally to a maximum of the last thirty years. And if you’re curious who invented the chemical periodic table? Wolfram Alpha will not only give you a brief bio of Dimitri Mendeleev, but also list who his family members were, and a link to his less famous invention, the pycnometer.
Wolfram Alpha also has plenty of popular and classical culture to draw on. Not sure who the characters are in Macbeth, aka “The Scottish Play”? Asking Wolfram Alpha will generate a list of the top characters, and how often they spoke – Banquo, for instance, only says 4.6% of the words in the play, appearing 32 times (still, he should be comforted by the fact that a long line of kings will follow in his wake). More fun is looking at a generated dialog timeline, that lets you see approximately when each character participates in the action of the play. Now you can really prove that “there are no small parts, only small actors”, by showing how a minor role interacts with the lead.
Or are you a sports fan, wanting to find Anibal Sanchez’s strikeouts for 2014, or DeMarcus Ware’s 2013 defensive stats? Just ask Wolfram Alpha.
If you’re having a bad hair day, existential questions are also available for probing by Wolfram Alpha – such as “Does Santa Claus exist?”, “Does (s)he love me?”, and “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop”.
And, if you want to pretend you’re talking to the computer on Star Trek, Wolfram Alpha will tell you Spock’s home planet – and Captain Kirk’s birthday.