We’re all used to turning to Google if we have a question and we usually get some pretty good results. But if your question involves computation or numbers, then it might be worth taking a look at a new service, Wolfram|Alpha.

It’s not technically a Search Engine, as Google is. Rather it’s a Computational Knowledge Engine.

#### Information vs computation

Where Google aims to search pages of information on the World Wide Web, Wolfram|Alpha aims to make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything.

#### Links to sites

That means that if you type into Google a question such as how many people live in New Zealand, you could expect to see links to websites that might talk about the population of New Zealand. You might, for example, see a link to Wikipedia, or the CIA Factbook, or perhaps Statistics New Zealand.

#### Answers and information

On the other hand, if you type that same question into Wolfram|Alpha, you receive an answer.

Wolfram|Alpha tells you that a 2007 estimate put our population at 4.18 million. It goes on to show you a graph of how the population has increased over recent decades. Then it gives further data and statistics about population density, life expectancy and how we rank in the world.

#### Trivia in numerical form

When it comes to maths and data, Wolfram|Alpha can help you while away quite a bit of time. For example, type in a question like what day of the week was 6 February 1840.

Not only do you see how many years, months, weeks and days ago it was, and which day of the week, but also handy facts about other notable events for the same date.

Would you like to know how much fat there is in buttermilk? Turn to Wolfram|Alpha for the answer.

Here are some other questions I asked where Wolfram|Alpha gave me an answer.

- How many people live in New Zealand?
- How many seconds till 16 October 2050?
- What day of the week was 6 February 1840?
- Tallest tree height.
- What is the surface temperature on Venus?
- What is the average lifespan of a dog?

Although that last one didn’t actually tell me the lifespan but I found out quite a few other things about dogs.

#### Maturity vs the Newcomer

The Google search engine was launched 11 years ago now. In the last decade it has been tweaked and improved daily. It can often guess what you were trying to search for, even if you make spelling mistakes.

Wolfram|Alpha is still quite experimental. It’s only been operating for about six months now. To be quite honest, for every question I’ve listed above that produced a good answer, I tried about 10 others that failed.

Unless you are asking for answers to kids’ homework questions, you may become fairly frustrated. But remember that Wolfram|Alpha hasn’t had time yet to mature in the way that Google has.

Next time you need some facts and figures give Wolfram|Alpha a try.

Written by Miraz Jordan for, and reproduced from CommunityNet Aotearoa Panui, November 2009. This article has been modified for publication here.