Fun with Knowledge Computation at Wolfram|Alpha

May 15, 2009

Wolfram|AlphaWhat's the unemployment rate of San Diego versus New York? How many football fields would fit between the Earth and the sun? What's the likelihood of getting two heads in 10 coin flips? As of tonight, one web search engine can calculate all that for you on the fly and more. Mathematician Stephen Wolfram's much-hyped "computational knowledge engine" Wolfram|Alpha just went public, and it's got more than a few data nerds tickled absolutely pink (myself included). Walpha (as I affectionately call it) finds and visualizes real-world data points from natural language queries.

I've just spent the last couple of hours throwing every kind of data query I could think of at Walpha. Some of the results were incredibly useful, others baffling, and others just missing. Here are some of the fun facts I learned using Walpha's calculations.

Walpha even makes CAPTCHAs and offers web site statistics given a URL.

Still, Walpha's very, well, alpha, and at times tonight it buckled under the load of the launch rush--but not without a sense of humor. Here's Walpha's error page:

Sorry, Dave

Also, Walpha balked on several questions I was sure it could handle, like what the weather in New York was the day my parents got married, and what kind of MPG the Prius gets. Don't even try things like chicken or the egg or if a tree falls in the woods...

Still, while Walpha's everyday uses for Joe Normal Web Searcher won't be obvious, this thing is a goldmine for researchers, students, journalists, and bloggers. If this is the alpha, I can't wait for the beta.

Gina, WolframAlpha is perfectly right, that your mother has a higher life expectancy. If she was 81.53 years old, would you expect the value to be 81.54? The older you are, the higher your LE is. Good news!

Stefan Plattner [+2]
May 15 09 at 11:03 pm

But LE’s go up depending on when you were born… so someone born in 1939 has a lower LE than someone born in 1975, no?

Gina Trapani [+195]
May 15 09 at 11:11 pm

At 33, your life expectancy is lowered by all the people that die in car-crashes, of heart attacks, eaten by sharks, etc. But your mother has already lived to 70, she is more “likely” to live to 86 than you are simply because she has a head start.

To put it bluntly you have more time (from age 33-81) to die than she does (from 70-86).

BUT you’re right – at your birth you had a much higher life expentancy than her.

For example, if you look at the “% of living past” stats on those pages you’ll note that statistically, you are more likely to live beyond age 75 than her – on raw statistics alone.

No, Gina. This was the case if you jump back to 1939 and would predict her LE then. But in the meantime your mother has already lived out many other people, which for example died young because of car accidents, cancer etc. A 1975 born has many “risky years.”

Live long and prosper! ;-)

BTW: my mother is born in 1939 too.

Stefan Plattner [+2]
May 16 09 at 12:28 am

PS: sorry for all the grammar mistakes in my previous post. D’oh! I hope it’s clear what I meant to say. I should read the stuff I write before hitting the submit button.

Stefan Plattner [+2]
May 16 09 at 12:32 am

Sadly, it can’t calculate the conversion from dollars to doughnuts $ = (❁ × n)

It is interesting how my first name is growing in popularity, tho.

Mason Wendell
May 16 09 at 6:26 am

@Stefan: Ok, I *think* that makes sense. Thanks for the explanation. :)

Gina Trapani [+195]
May 16 09 at 7:36 am

Ok, yes, thanks everyone. Getting my head wrapped around LE tables. Interestingly, my spouse’s 94-year-old grandfather’s life expectancy is 97.6 years. Cool!

Gina Trapani [+195]
May 16 09 at 7:51 am

Most of these questions don’t work. Starting from the second question in your post — — to the dollars to doughtnuts stuff.

Nice concept but I’ll save my excitement for when basic queries yield something over and above google and clusty.

May 17 09 at 9:09 am

Here’s the query that yields the answer to the first question:

distance between moon and earth / length of a football field

Gina Trapani [+195]
May 17 09 at 9:58 am

first time poster – fan from Lifehacker and TWiT

re LE changing with age

“It is important to note that life expectancy rises sharply in all cases for those who reach puberty.

A pre 20th Century individual who lived past the teenage years could expect to live to an age close to the life expectancy of today.”

and re personal longevity – lower on the same page

“On an individual basis, there are a number of factors that have been shown to correlate with a longer life.

Some factors that appear to influence life expectancy include family history, marital status, economic status, physique, exercise, diet, drug use including smoking and alcohol consumption, disposition, education, environment, sleep, climate, and health care. [22]”

statistics are fun to interpret

May 20 09 at 5:39 am

I told it i was born in 1800 and it said my survival probability was ‘minimal’!

May 26 09 at 3:02 pm

Comments are closed. Thanks for reading!