Stephen Wolfram is a remarkable person. He published his first scientific paper at the age of 15 and earned a Ph.D. in physics from Cal Tech when he was 20. Funded by the MacArthur Fellows Program, Wolfram’s early studies involved computer software known as cellular automata. These were simple programs that could replicate themselves many times over, and, given enough time and repetition, random elements appeared and created major changes in the overall orientation of the program. In other words, Wolfram successfully simulated the growth of complex systems from very simple ones, an accomplishment whose implications have rippled across various scientific disciplines, from biology and genetics to cosmology, meteorology, even quantum physics.
Wolfram’s fascination with interconnected mathematical systems pushed him to incorporate a wider and more varied approach. Eventually he realized the logical assumption underlying his research was that all mathematical formulas and algorithms could interconnect and give rise to a vast database, combining data and equations from every natural science into the ultimate tool for scientific research.
Stephen Wolfram’s project, Wolfram|Alpha, was created for exactly this reason. Its user interface consists of a public website, within which is nested a variety of downloadable applications. The site suggests which programs might be useful for the question at hand and disambiguates search information just like Wikipedia. But the information at the user’s disposal is unlike anything else online. If Wikipedia is the ultimate encyclopedia, Wolfram|Alpha is the ultimate calculator, and its potential for cross-referencing data from far afield is the aspect that becomes the most elemental with its use over time.
Wolfram|Alpha’s practical applications aren’t blindingly apparent when first using the site, but after further use, the possibilities become more concrete. Wolfram|Alpha draws from more than 10 trillion (that’s twelve zeroes—a thousand billions!) primary sources and more than 50,000 equations and algorithms. Of course, these sources may be cross-referenced again and again, often in completely novel combinations. In terms of cultural significance, Wolfram|Alpha’s most obvious parallel might be thought of as direct access to not only a team of experts in a given discipline but a savant-level intellect that correlates and recombines the expertise of every quantifiable field of study imaginable.
Users might request something as mundane as the caloric intake of a fast food meal and then refer to the amount of exercise necessary to expend those calories for a specified height and weight. Geographical queries yield immediately useful results such as the price of gas in a destination city, average traffic wait length, the fuel expended during wait time, the dimensions of the freeway system, complete demographics of the area, the accessibility of public transit systems, movie and theater showtimes, the time required for travel to the destination by bus, ship, or air, including the time light and sound travel the same distance, just to name a few of the data points computed. Weather and satellite data are easily cross-referenced and draw from continually updated weather sources.
Amateur astronomers might use the database to plan out the night’s stargazing, comparing any two—or any 100—stellar objects in terms of magnitude, luminosity, distance from Earth, distance from other objects, light travel time, constellations, similar objects, etymologies, etc. This sort of applied knowledge once existed solely in the realm of the expert trained in complex physics theories. Wolfram|Alpha delivers this knowledge in response to plain English search queries and democratizes expert data by using an open-source format that anyone can access.
A search for “breeds of cats” uncovers another rabbit hole to explore (and some much-needed adorableness). Breed size, weight, description, origin, mutation, temperament, range and more are manipulable data that can be compared side-by-side with that of other breeds or other species.
The same idea can apply to wildly different parameters, such as social media. Wolfram|Alpha recently released an app that analyzes Facebook accounts if users are interested in cross-referencing all the data they’ve contributed to that social network. Weekly and hourly distribution of posts, most often used terms, most liked and commented posts, post lengths, friend geography, gender and status reductions are only a few of the items presented in clear charts and graphs for quick study. These data provide insight into one’s own use of digital technologies in a virtual social venue that can be found nowhere else on the web.
When Wolfram|Alpha “went live” in 2009, it met with tepid reviews, primarily because many critics had difficulty locating a proper context within which to analyze the new service.
Google scoured the web for data; Wikipedia compiled and organized the data. What was Wolfram|Alpha supposed to do again?
One major difference is the insularity of Wolfram|Alpha. Its searches ignore the World Wide Web altogether, drawing instead from servers crammed with raw proprietary data. Its interconnections sometimes fail, but the site expands daily, not just in terms of source updates, but in scope and vision as well. Initially derided as a tool for math whizzes and science geeks, Wolfram|Alpha has spread into other online markets, often creating new niches within existing architecture. For example, iPhone fact-finding application Siri utilizes the Wolfram|Alpha engine for about 25 percent of its requests.
Stephen Wolfram’s ultimate goal for the project is to discover the so-called Grand Unified Theory of physics, the theorized mathematical substructure of the universe that has long eluded the most brilliant minds of the field. Perhaps it’s something of a happy accident that the engine created to plumb the depths of existence is also highly useful for us non-genius types. As established during its first few years, Wolfram|Alpha will continue to fill in the spaces between other online services or augment them in ways yet to be conceived. Someday an online database may have all the answers, but for now, it’s the questions we haven’t yet thought to ask that make Wolfram|Alpha so exciting to watch.