App of the Week – Wolfram|Alpha

Again, welcome to a new academic year USMA cadets, faculty, and staff! With the new year brings new technology–in the form of 4,000+ cadet iPads! Since USMA Library staff members are always looking for the best resources to recommend to our users, we are starting a series called App of the Week, wherein we recommend the best apps to support the academic experience. Please let us know what you think, and feel free to provide suggestions for apps we should review.

If you’ve heard of Wolfram|Alpha before, you may have heard it compared to Google and Bing—but it is not your typical search engine.  Its creators call it a “knowledge engine,” because it does not search the web for information – it is pre-programmed with data that was curated by humans (not web crawlers). It uses its computational abilities to answer natural language based queries and/or high-level math equations. Thus, Wolfram|Alpha can only retrieve answers about things that are known – to make the distinction, you can ask “What year was the United States Military Academy founded?” but not more subtle questions like “Why was the United States Military Academy founded?”

Math example (you can also choose “step by step” calculations, to help understand the work behind it):


Compare economic data (Wolfram|Alpha is especially helpful for data comparisons):


And for fun, a 2009 NFL quarterback comparison:


See this FAQ and these examples for more information about Wolfram|Alpha’s scope. You really have to explore it for yourself to see all of the possibilities!

You can use Wolfram|Alpha for free on your desktop/laptop/mobile device/tablet, but the iPad app is customized specifically for iPad use, with the additional benefit of being able to save favorites and view your search history. It’s better than visiting Wikipedia every time you want to start researching a subject, or need a quick answer to a question–not only are the sources vetted before entry into Wolfram|Alpha’s knowledge base, but in the app, those sources are listed directly below your query answer, with related links to your search below that.

The only major downside of this app, and its corresponding subject-based apps: they’re not free. But if I could only recommend one paid app to anyone, ever, it would be Wolfram|Alpha.  Explore the amazing Wolfram|Alpha website for more information on everything it can do (you will be fascinated!), and for more helpful reviews on the app and site, visit the links below.

The ultimate “kitchen sink” app – Wolfram Alpha

Wolfram Alpha App is so Smart It’s Scary

32 Tricks You Can Do With Wolfram Alpha, The Most Useful Site In The History Of The Internet

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. No endorsement or recommendation of any specific products or services is intended or implied.

Contents contributed by Lauren Dodd Hall, Circulation Librarian