WolframAlpha: Find Absolutely Anything

Stephen Fry—British writer, actor, and geek extraordinaire—recently wrote of the iPad, “One melancholy thought occurs as my fingers glide and flow over the surface of this astonishing object: Douglas Adams is not alive to see the closest thing to his Hitchhiker’s Guide that humankind has yet devised.”

That is a sad fact indeed; apps like Articles and Wikipanion have essentially made The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a reality, and Douglas Adams, who died in 2001, missed seeing the fantastic mesh of software, hardware, and network that made his dream real by only a few years.

Human ingenuity being what it is, though, the capabilities of the iPhone and the iPad have already begun to overtake the capabilities of The Hitchhiker’s Guide, and WolframAlpha is a great example of that. Today we’ll be looking at how this knowledge and functionality is packed into a simple iPhone app.

The Goal

The goal of WolframAlpha is, in the words of their About page: “to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone… our goal is to build on the achievements of science and other systematizations of knowledge to provide a single source that can be relied on by everyone for definitive answers to factual queries.” In other words, if you can do math about it, WolframAlpha wants to give you answers about it.

Parameters

The first thing to know about the iPhone version is… well, just at this second, the question on a lot of minds is probably whether it has an iPad version. It does, and it’s a universal app, so pay $2 once and install it on every iDevice you have, and it will run with a native interface everywhere.

The second thing to know about the iPhone version is that it’s basically an attractive (and strongly branded) iPhone-native interface for WolframAlpha.com. What it’s not is a pocket-sized version of the five million lines of code and 10,000 CPUs WolframAlpha runs on; if you get caught without a network connection, WolframAlpha for iPhone won’t be much use to you.

No Internet Connection

No Internet Connection

On first launch, WolframAlpha warns you that it will request access to your location information so it can provide customised information. If you’ve used the web interface, this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise—doing a search for, for example, “Mars now” will provide (among other things) a sky map based on a best-guess location for your IP address.

The iPhone version just takes a more direct (and accurate) approach to getting your location. Once you allow the current location request (or don’t), you’re confronted with a text field and two keyboards stacked on top of each other. The bottom one is fairly normal, but the top one should be labeled “HERE THERE BE MATH” for those, like me, who just about remember how to find x.

If you’re uncomfortable with the kind of math that requires the use of Ω, an upside-down letter A, or the male and female symbols, you probably won’t find much of a need for the top keyboard. If you need those symbols, well… they’re there.

Introduction to Wolfram

Introduction to Wolfram

How It Works

Once you’ve entered a question—say, “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?”—WolframAlpha will show you how it interpreted your query, any assumptions it made to find the results, and any results it came up with.

In this case, WolframAlpha has insufficient data to estimate the velocity of an African swallow, but if you tweak its assumptions to find information about a European swallow, it will quite happily tell you that an unladen one flies at 25 miles per hour (or, if you prefer, 40 kilometers per hour, 21 knots, or 11 meters per second).

Trying out a Search

Trying out a Search

It’s a good idea to keep an eye on the assumptions WolframAlpha is making about your question, because the wrong assumption can mean no answer when it really should have one.

In addition to posing your question of the moment, the Bookmarks button in the upper-left corner of the app allows you to try out a number of examples included with the app that can help you figure out what all it can do. I’ve barely skimmed the surface of these tutorial examples, and I’ve already discovered that it’s equally easy to find the properties of a black hole at ten solar masses and figure out your carbon footprint for a given road trip.

Bookmarks also hides your history, favorites, and the app’s About page. In the upper-right corner of the app lives a share button that lets you add a given question to favorites, open a question on WolframAlpha.com in MobileSafari, share a question with Mail, or share a question using Twitter’s web interface.

Buttons

Buttons

How It Doesn’t Work

Take a moment, right now, to go to WolframAlpha.com and search for “iss now”. I’ll wait.

Pretty damn impressive, right? Now try to search for your favorite sports team’s scores. Unless the team at Wolfram have run a pretty substantial update in the few hours since I wrote this review, you got nothing. If you just searched for the team’s name, you may have gotten lucky and found their season standings and record history from a year or two ago.

As far as I can tell, the philosophy behind WolframAlpha is that if Google can find it, WolframAlpha doesn’t need to. Leave sports scores to the everyday search engines; WolframAlpha can tell you when a given satellite will next be visible to you personally. WolframAlpha really shines when dealing with scientific and technological data.

My only other complaint is that the Bookmarks and Share buttons look as if they were pulled directly out of a brushed-metal Tiger app. The end result is that they always look ‘greyed-out’, even though they’re always active.

The Price is Right

I wouldn’t have considered reviewing this app a month ago, since it originally cost $49.99. It was recently reduced to $1.99, probably in part because there is a perfectly capable (and free, if less attractive and native) mobile version of WolframAlpha.com that provides most of the same features.

I have to say, I didn’t expect to be nearly as impressed by WolframAlpha as I was. All the same, at $50, buying this app was a laughable idea; at $2, it’s a no-brainer. There are still many questions it can’t answer, but I plan to keep WolframAlpha on my iPhone for those moments when I need the answer to life, the universe, and everything—which, by the way, WolframAlpha gets right: it’s 42.


Summary

WolframAlpha provides access to information that just isn't available in any other way, but sometimes chokes on seemingly simple questions.

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