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The Buzz About Wolfram|Alpha

Wolfram|Alpha is a new search engine. Scratch that — it”s a “computational knowledge engine,” and also “the first step in an ambitious, long-term project to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone.” W|A has generated a lot of buzz since it launched on May 15.

W|A is different from Google and other search engines in that it calculates results based on its own library of data, gleaned from public sources. It can do calculus, tell you the phase of the moon on the day you were born, compare state sales tax rates, explain how you are related to your third cousin”s great grandson, and perform many other nifty tricks.

Take a look at the Wolfram|Alpha search examples related to Health & Medicine. As health information professionals, what do you think of Wolfram|Alpha”s attempts to interpret medical tests or to identify drug interactions? A post on the blog provides examples of how W|A”s conclusions might be questionable. The author would like for W|A to be “more explicit about where the data is coming from and how results are derived” and I think most medical librarians would agree. Interestingly, Wolfram|Alpha states in its own FAQ that “for academic purposes, Wolfram|Alpha is a primary source.”

W|A”s database is impressively large and growing, but there are still many search terms it does not know how to handle. Furthermore, it does not work well with natural language search terms yet. Queries need to be stated in very specific ways.

One thing that can”t be said about Wolfram|Alpha is that it doesn”t have a sense of humor. Check out 10 Even Better Wolfram|Alpha Easter Eggs for a good laugh.

More about Wolfram|Alpha:

Introduction to Wolfram|Alpha by Stephen Wolfram review

Can a New Search Engine Outdo Google? from NPR”s Talk of the Nation

One Response to “The Buzz About Wolfram|Alpha”

  1. Hope Leman Says:

    Hi, Alison. Very edifying review. I tried “amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” but I had to spend so much time trying to figure out how to frame the question in a way that Wolfram|Alpha would understand that I gave up. Not ready for prime time sort of thing. But maybe those who are skilful at constructing search queries can make Wolfram|Alpha rock. We shall see what we shall see.