Saturday, May 16, 2009

Not long ago I read an article about Stephen Wolfram, a dapper British bloke who was publishing papers on particle physics at age 17, and who received his Ph.D. from Caltech at the age of 20. Well recently, between breakfast and lunch, our good chap Wolfram created "Wolfram Alpha." The self-dubbed computational knowledge engine went live May 15th. So, what is that you ask? Let's just say that if Wolfram Alpha and Google ever mate, SkyNet will be born and anyone who has watched Terminator 2 will never sleep again. Okay, back to the question; Wolfram Alpha is like a giant calculator taking input from your full name, a formula for a Taylor series (e.g., "taylor series sin x^2" - I wish I had this when I took calculus ), or genome sequences (e.g., "ACGCAAGCGAGC") to an RGB color (e.g., "rgb 127 255 212"). So, let's try it out!

Tell me about my first name, Wolfram Alpha...please. At this point I'm feeling a little like I'm on the bridge of the Enterprise, but before I can even push my glasses back up the bridge of my nose, Wolfram has an answer. Apparently 1 in 1499 people in the United States (0.067%) share my name. Some might call us a rare commodity. We should start a club. In 2007, "Wesley" ranked 195th in popular names in America with a lucky, yet slim, 0.093% of all newborns receiving their invitation to join our exclusive club. Hmmm, what else?

Wolfram Alpha? No answer. Tell me about "McDonalds" please. After a momentary pause while Wolfram Alpha scratched its surely oversized brain and flexed its fiberoptic muscles, I soon find myself looking at stock quotes, P/E ratios, price histories, crazy but impressively complex graphs and diagrams, and even an address of origin. Nice, but one more test is in order--just for fun.

Wolfram Alpha, what is the nutritional value of my "ham and cheese sandwich"? Wait for Wolfram to think. Total calories: 350, protein: 25 g... this is impressive and all, but what about something sincerely difficult to figure out? Wolfram gives me the "shame on you" face. Riboflavin content:
480 μg (insert diagram reminiscent of stuff I ignored in biology class), folic acid content: 4.4 μg., and the sandwich's likely size: 5.1 oz.

Well, my share of the 0.067% of Wesleys nationwide is very impressed. I spent a good hour grilling my new-found digital Rainman on a wide variety of topics. I'm just expanding my repertoire of useless information for the next time I get stuck in a long line with some food science majors, get lost in the ESC, or imitate Stephen Hawking (a surprisingly common occurrence). You see useless information isn't entirely useless!