Tuesday Two.Oh! Tools for Research.

Tuesday Two.Oh! is not meant as an endorsement, but as an exploration of the tools that are out there. Click at your own risk. 🙂

Today on Tuesday Two.Oh! we will be taking a look at a tool that can aid in research as well as provide comparisons. We have lived in a world dominated by search engines for years, and words like “Google” have entered our common lexicon. With this vast popularity, Google has inevitably become the golden standard. The buzz about todays tool is mixed, partly because it is not an internet search engine, but a tool with static results as opposed to links.

Let’s take a look at Wolfram Alpha.

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From the site:”Wolfram|Alpha’s long-term goal is to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone. We aim to collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything. 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.”

What this means, generally, is that this is not a typical search engine. In fact, Wolfram Alpha does not search the open web at all, but rather relies on its internal database of facts and figures. This means the results you get in return after a search has ended is the raw data, rather than a list of links. For instance, if you Googled “Muskogee, Oklahoma” you would receive results ranging from the city page to maps links. In Wolfram Alpha you will receive raw data, such as population, median income, and other relevant facts.

What I would like to do today is show you a couple of the features of Wolfram Alpha. That said, I highly suggest that you take walk through, provided by the site. It’s an excellent look at the power of this tool.

Please take a minute to watch the Wolfram Screencast: it’s well worth it.

When you first come to the homepage of Wolfram Alpha (http://www.wolframalpha.com) you will see a basic search screen, similar to what you would see when looking at Google.

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Any number of things can be entered into this search box. When you watch the screencast, you’ll see that you can enter anything from simple to complex mathematics equations to what the weather was like on a specific date in history.

When I first started using the site, I took some time to take a look at their examples. When you’re looking at the homepage, there is a menu bar on the right side of your screen. It looks like this:

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This is a great place to start when using Wolfram Alpha for the first time. It’s true that this site isn’t Google, but there is still a learning curve.

Wolfram Alpha provides many search examples in order to give your browsing power as well as instruction as to how to use the site. If you prefer, you can browse example search results visually:

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If you would rather browse by topic, there is also a feature to help you do that.

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Now, let’s take a look at a results page. As I mentioned before, the results that come back will be the raw data as opposed to a collection of links. It will look like this:

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The above result is for an element of mathematics. But Wolfram Alpha can do more. A search for a musical chord is also possible:

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The last search example I would like to share with you is a comparative search. In Wolfram Alpha you can compare lots of things including stocks, drugs, companies, and to a lesser extent (for just basic facts) historical figures:

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Once again, I want to urge you to watch the screencast in order to get an in-depth tour of Wolfram Alpha.

Please take a minute to watch the Wolfram Screencast: it’s well worth it.

In closing, I really think that Wolfram Alpha has the potential to be an incredibly powerful and useful tool. One of the first features that I really enjoy is the “Download as PDF.” The portability of a PDF which can be saved to your hard drive or jump drive is very useful. As a researcher myself, I have found that duplicating Google searches can be trying, and change over time due to the algorithm used. In Wolfram Alpha the results will be static in a PDF. Another immediate feature I enjoy is the relative permanentness of a result; the result is easily linked and shared, which will always be a plus.

One of the major drawbacks I see is the fact that there is a learning curve. I found myself typing in phrases that Wolfram Alpha did not understand. Trial and error is always a part of research, be it in a database or on the open web. However, the ease at which a search can be conducted often reflects the popularity of the tool. I do think that with use the learning curve can be overcome, and I hope it doesn’t deter too many users.

In the end, though, I find that Wolfram Alpha is quite a useful tool. My first impression is that it is different than Google, and comparing it as such can leave a false impression. However, a search tool is a search tool, and using what works for you is always a good rule of thumb.

If you have an opinion, I invite you to leave a comment and let us know how you feel!

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1 Comment

Filed under 2.0, Tutorial, two.oh!, web site

One response to “Tuesday Two.Oh! Tools for Research.

  1. Yes, a lot of “useful” information. Great source for “quick facts” (in certain areas/subjects, but not all). You definitely must know how to ask the question (I ran into a lot of dead ends myself). It really is an amazing resource, but as they advertise, a work in progress; it has its limitations. Their screencast demo was very amazing (of course, canned content — they knew which questions to ask and how to ask them). Great use of examples to get across their point. Their visual aids really give you an idea of the breadth of their topics and data compiled thus far. This one may bear watching.

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