I’ve been enjoying the new digital plaything, Wolfram|Alpha. It’s a data-thick “computational” search engine, trying to deliver relevant hard numbers for search terms. Wolfram provides a hodgepodge of data, not quite as robust as I hoped, but with potential to be a real boon for writers doing research, verifying facts, and correlating information. At the moment, Wolfram seems limited to some raw data basics, like city and census data, properties of elements and simple materials, weather conditions, calendar entries, mathematical equations and graphing. But I like where it could go.
As both a fiction writer and an advertising copywriter, I have found myself in situations where I needed a specific type of fact but couldn’t think of where or how to dig it up.
As just one example, in my catalog copywriting days, we were asked to highlight just how far we had to go to import a particular Turkish product. So how far was it from Turkey to Chicago? At the time, I couldn’t find any reliable resource on the Internet to give me an answer, and I didn’t have time to go beyond digital research. But if I could have asked Wolfram, “Chicago to Turkey,” it would have responded: “5,807 miles.”
Wolfram’s limits are a little frustrating and shallow yet. When asked about my the day of my birth, Wolfram can tell me that hockey player Terry Sawchuck died (apparently the only notable event going on at the time), and that as my parents drove to the hospital that night, they looked up and saw a waning crescent moon (assuming it wasn’t cloudy in Cincinnati). Ask Wolfram about Saskatoon and you’ll get the population, the elevation and a graph of the last two months’ worth of temperatures in that Saskatchewan city — but little else. Don’t bother asking about Sherlock Holmes; the extent of Wolfram’s understanding of the great detective is limited to the cast of 1939’s “The Adventures of …”.
Still, there are some rays of light for where this is headed. Maureen Clements writes at NPR about the possibility that “a tool like this could revolutionize investigative reporting for cash-strapped news organizations … Reporters and researchers [might] no longer have to spend countless hours compiling data to determine whether correlations exist between events.”
Until Wolfram gets that beefy, it at least can boast Doublas Adams’s sense of humor. Just ask it the most important question of all time: