Wolfram|Alpha and Literature

May 30, 2009 by

On 18 May 2009, a new Internet service called Wolfram|Alpha was unleashed to the world.  It’s a “computational knowledge engine”, but looks similar enough like a search engine to confuse a whole lot of Internet users still expecting conventional Google-like responses to queries. 

Contrary to first impressions, it is *not* a search engine, but a rather interesting experiment.  I’ll let the site itself describe their intentions:

Wolfram|Alpha’s long-term goal is to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone. We aim to collect and curate all objective data; implement every known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute whatever can be computed about anything.

After playing with it awhile, you’ll immediately notice that Wolfram|Alpha (which is incidentally named after its creator Stephen Wolfram, a British physicist, mathematician and MacArthur Fellow) plays in a different space than Google.  Let’s just say you wouldn’t use it to look for the best restaurants in town.

But what has it got to do with books?  Out of curiosity I started to put in literature related searches in Wolfram|Alpha, and was pleasantly surprised at what I found.

Searching for a book title returns a brief summary in a tabular format (click on the image(s) to see the full-sized screenshots):


In fact, a generic search term like ‘literature’ would give you some ideas:


I also tried to compare authors:

You can clearly see the lifetime overlaps, which you can potentially use to deduce further information about the respective authors work (i.e. would it be possible that one could have influenced the other, etc).

I also tried a branch of literary theory:

They couldn’t give an answer, as you can see, but I had a chance to leave a message!  So I did:

I’m very interested in using Wolfram|Alpha to explore Literary Criticism and Theory and how everything may relate to one another – perhaps in terms of influence or commonalities.

Wolfram|Alpha reminds me of Freakonomics – where data and statistics from a particular subject, when cross-referenced with social/cultural data can yield incredibly interesting and unexpected results.  For other subject matters Wolfram|Alpha is capable of getting mathematical data from different sources, collate them and present them in a graphical manner (charts and graphs generated on the fly).  It’s clearly not there yet where literature is concerned, but who knows what else it can find in the future, as users get used to its search string idiosyncrasies. 

You could also try it with different search terms – and let us know what nuggets of information you may have found from using it in the comments.

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