Wolfram Alpha: Meshing The Worlds Of Science and Search

    May 12, 2009

 Let me ask you something. Do you think we need Wolfram Alpha?

I know that’s the equivalent of asking someone circa 1999 “do you think we need Google?” but I’m just not sure what role the much anticipated search engine will fill.

Oh, excuse me. It’s not a search engine. It’s a “computational knowledge engine.”

The NYT tells us that Stephen Wolfram–Alpha’s creator–is “not keen” on the comparison with Google. But, even if it’s not a true search engine, will the average web user find value in Wolfram Alpha?

Consider some of the examples given to demonstrate the potential of Wolfram Alpha:

Type in “Pluto” and Alpha calculates the dwarf planet’s distance from Earth at that very instant…If you type “LDL 120,” it will return a graph showing the distribution of cholesterol levels among the United States population.

Wow! That’s impressive stuff–if I were a scientist!

It seems that Alpha will fill a need that the scientific community will appreciate, but what about us average users? OK, so perhaps there will be a time in my life when I will need to know the average cholesterol level of my next door neighbor, but when I want to “order flowers online” I won’t be turning to Alpha.

And, that’s the big challenge I see facing Alpha. It’s not a matter of how accurate or sophisticated the search engine/database/index is, it’s simply a question of its everyday usefulness.

I’ve not tested Alpha yet, but I suspect it will be more of a challenger to Wikipedia, than Google.