Taking Wolfram Alpha For A Test Drive

Wolfram Alpha is, according to the website, the world’s first computational knowledge engine, and I have been kicking tires and taking her out for a spin. The user interface is as simple as Google’s: nothing but a text box where you enter your query. The difference between them is that Wolfram is optimized to calculate information for you. Enter “Sun” and it tells you the Sun’s current position, local sunrise and sunset times and so on.

The return page (see the sample below) is beautifully laid out. Accompanying the engine are forums for user feedback,  helpful FAQ’s, and best of all, examples from many fields, including astronomy, that make it easy to get going. Altogether, the web site impresses me with its excellent human engineering.

So is it useful for professional astronomy? Well, at the moment I think it does a very good job of serving the armchair astronomer more than the professional. Let’s take one example, from the site’s own examples: a query for the exoplanet Upsilon Andromedae b.

The return page looks like this  (I show it in two images).

Wolfram Alpha Return Page For Exoplanet Upsilon Andromedae b

Now, professional astronomers would need much more technical information than this, and they would want to know about the uncertainties and errors, as well as access to radial velocity curves and time series data. The NASA Star and Exoplanet Database gathers and serves all this technical information, and links each measurement to its source, rather than give a list of sources, as Wolfram does now. See a section of the NStED return page on Upsilon Andromedae b below:

Just part of the NStED pages for Upsilon Andromedae b

I think that if Wolfram Alpha can marry its computational power to seamless access to data such as those in the figure above, most likely through Virtual Observatory protocols, it can become a powerful tool for professional astronomers. I can see it using information on exoplanets and host stars to predict transit times, times of periastron, light curve statistics, and so on.

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