Why do you still teach knowledge? With the launch of Wolfram|Alpha, you are going to find yourself squirming more than ever when asked this question at the dinner table.

Einstein famously asked “Why should I clutter my brain with information that is readily available from reference sources?” And that was in the days when recovering such information required a trip to a (physical) library. I would much rather spend my time instilling into young minds the habit (and skills) of reflexively hitting Google, Wikipedia and, now, Wolfram whenever they find themselves wondering about the date of this, the composition of that, or the method for the other.

So, what is the difference between these three sources of information? To get an idea, I investigated a current topic, Swine Flu, via each. My particular interest is I want to know the likelihood of contracting it myself when I visit Brazil this Autumn.

  • Google returns a rich mix of news, scientific information and adverts for Tamiflu. All useful background, but little to help make a prediction.
  • Wikipedia has a fantastic history of swine flu back to 1918, but very little numerical information of any kind.
  • Wolfram just gives me the numbers. To date, only 11 cases in Brazil compared to 137 in the UK. Graphs of cases worldwide since the start of the outbreak show that growth is roughly linear and not exponential as it would be in a true epidemic. Based on this, I can extrapolate that there will be approx. 20,000 cases and 100 deaths per month worldwide. Of these, perhaps as few as 10 cases per month and no deaths will be in Brazil. So, safe to travel.

I don’t propose that Wolfram has the answer to everything but it does have its place amongst tools your students are using now, and tools they will use in future. I do hope that you will encourage your students to take delight in what it can do for them.

P.S. Your best educational use of Wolfram|Alpha in the comments please!


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2 responses to “Wolfram|Alpha”

  1. Nice use of wolfram alpha! This thing can just be used in new ways everyday. Try a search of china vs usa .. this thing is the bee’s knees.


  2. Nice application Ian. I tried the same thing using Malaria – interesting, but not so neat. (Provides interesting data for charting.)

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