The key idea about Google and other search engines like Bing or Yahoo is that they search for words or phrases you put into the search box.
The popularity of the search engine is demonstrated by the fact that Google is visited by 600 million visitors each day whose searches result in about 12 billion page views each day.
While there is a huge amount of information ("facts provided or learned about something or someone"), there is also knowledge ("facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject"). While there has been an explosion of information as measured by the number of pages found on the Web, there has also been an equally important increase in the amount of knowledge available.
Because education is about knowledge rather than information, the use of search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo, is not good educational practice; they give kids access to lots of information but not much knowledge.
But if there is a great deal of knowledge available the question is how to access it?
In 2009 Stephan Wolfram launched WolframAlpha.com which although it resembles a search site like Google, Bing, or Yahoo, it has been designed to serve as a knowledge engine.
Stephan Wolfram is a British-born American software developer, educator, scientist, author, and entrepreneur.
His formal schooling includes Eton, Oxford, and Cal Tech. His Ph.D. from Cal Tech is in theoretical physics. He was the youngest recipient of the MacArthur Foundation's Genius Awards.
He became a professor of physics at Cal Tech, then at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and finally as a professor of Physics at the University of Illinois.
It was in Champaign, Illinois, that he began his company Wolfram Research. The company's major product is a program called Mathematica, "a symbolic mathematical computation program, sometimes called a computer algebra program, used in many scientific, engineering, mathematical, and computing fields." (Wikipedia entry for "Mathematica")
WolframAlpha, according to Stephan Wolfram, was the realization of an idea that he had since he was a kid. "The idea is: take all the systematic knowledge--and data--that our civilization has accumulated, and somehow make it computable. Make it so that given any specific question one might ask, one can just compute the answer on the basis of that knowledge and data."
Wolfram's phrase for this is "computable knowledge." Knowledge is more than facts; it is facts that cohere because they all fit into some sort of conceptual framework (e.g. mathematics). Knowledge about how to solve an algebra problem is obviously "computable." So in WolframAlpha, type an algebra problem into the search bar of WolframAlpha: evaluate x^2 + 5x + 6 = 0.
WolframAlpha will not only compute an answer but it will also provide the user with a step-by-step process for solving the problem.
While math is clearly "computable" knowledge, WolframAlpha alerts us to how much of knowledge (STEM!) is in fact computable.
There is a huge repository of information about chemicals (molar mass, phase, melting and boiling points, density, surface tension, and on and on).
But the WolframAlpha engine also includes a huge number of algorithms ("zillions" says Wolfram, in 1000+ knowledge domains) that make it possible to compute knowledge. So you can ask it to balance a chemical equation or find the isomeres for a given chemical formula, or how to visualize a vortex field in physics.
But other unexpected domains are also computable. For example, entering the string "Hamlet characters" reveals that Hamlet speaks 39.1% of all the words in the play and appears 358 times during the play's action while Ophelia has 4% of the dialog and appears only 58 times. It also computes the amount of time that each character is on stage in each act and the percent of time each is talking. Note the kinds of questions that need to be asked for computable knowledge in literature. It's quite different from the content of most literature classes.
How does WolframAlpha work?
The WolframAlpha machine is composed of several different coordinated systems. First, it possesses a huge database that contains "10+ trillion pieces of data from primary sources with continuous updating." The list of examples goes from mathematics to image input; from chemistry and physics to statistics and data analysis. Also included are words and linguistics. Just about everything that is computable.
The thousands of algorithms from the 1000+ knowledge domains handle the computation and presentation of answers, almost always with a graphical representation of the data. The third element is the ability to use natural language to query the system. You can ask questions using ordinary language.
When I first encountered WolframAlpha, I tried to use it as a variation of Google or Yahoo; that is, as a search engine, and was not impressed. Google is a much better site if you want a listing of information about a topic. Further exploration changed my perception; I had been misusing the tool.
What I have found is that WolframAlpha actually is, as promised, a knowledge engine. Or, perhaps another way to describe it, it is a tool to help one conduct inquiry. Think of inquiry as a four-part process: identifying a question, framing the question in terms of the real world, collecting data and using that data to compute an answer to the inquiry question, and then looking at the answer in terms of the real world. What does it say about the real world? Is it consistent with what is known about that real world?
The WolframAlpha site forces one to be thoughtful about what is asked. It's easy to ask Google, Yahoo, or Bing anything: "what's the best hamburger in Columbia?" You quickly get 548,000 hits to the query.
It takes more thought to pose a question on the WolframAlpha site because it must be about computable data. This constraint forces us into a STEM frame of mind because STEM is about computable knowledge.
The second step is to frame our question in terms of real world things that are countable. We can't ask whether South Carolina is a good state in which to live. We can instead look at data that might serve to describe the quality of life in South Carolina in comparison with other states, such as household or per capita income.
I then need to collect data and compute where my particular data falls in the total data that I have collected. Finally, I refer my findings back to the real world. Have I actually answered the question I began with? Does the answer make sense in terms of other information that I and others have about the "real world?"
WolframAlpha is a great tool for finding data and computing it.
It also can serve as a kind of inquiry tool. If you can't frame a question that can be answered by WolframAlpha, you might want to reframe the question.
Stephen Wolfram (2012) “Latest Perspectives on the Computation Age.” Wolfram’s Blog on WolframAlpha.com
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.