In my attempt to differentiate between Search and Research (a topic that I return to around this time in the semester) I found a current event with a point of focus: ‘Chasing an asteroid!’
As luck would have it, NASA just launched a mission, Osiris Rex, that is basically a space explorer that will be chasing an asteroid for two years, before it grabs a piece of it and hustles back to earth. Students love events like this, and quickly dig deep into finding information around it.
And as luck would also have it, there’s a new Search engine called Omnity that promises to do better, providing ‘constellations of meaning.’ Smarter than Google, even! I wish it was true, and plan to find out shortly.
Sometimes ‘research’ involves going down that rabbit hole and unearthing nuggets of information that seldom shows up on a simple search query. Students will find out that although the mission will take 7 years the return trip will take longer than getting there. Why? What determines the timeline? Google sometimes lulls us into being content with unspectacular answers. It makes us unwilling to do probe deeper.
After all, it’s not enough to teach today’s students how to use Google and Bing, or even Wolfram Alpha, but emerging tools, as we go chasing after asteroids in class.
I came across a really neat search engine, with an intriguing name of Wolfram|Alpha. It’s been just a month in business!
No, it’s not yet another search engine! (Especially after the hoopla over Bing – basically a re-branding of Microsoft’s un-sexy Live Search.) It’s a darn smart search tool for data-driven questions. The Wolfram Alpha folk call a a knowledge engine.
Why is this geeky search engine so useful?
You can get factual, unbiased answers to queries that involve a range of things from science and demographics to mathematics. It takes some learning how to use the query. You can use it for a veriety of reasons when you are working on reports, proposals, stories, or you just need to feed your brain!
- You need to convert 20 million Italian Lira to US dollars. You simply type in 20,000,000 Lira (or Rupees or Yen) and hit the = sign. It converts it 5 currencies. But that’s not all. You can search a date in history and see data about that particular day.
- If you want to compare the populations of Arizona, Texas and Nevada, you need to type ‘population Arizona Texas Nevada” and hit the equal sign —to get this result.
- Get more detail demographic data. Let’s say you’re doing a story about people killed in the latest mass protests in Tehran. Type out “life expectancy of females in Iran” and you get some detailed numbers. (In Google, you’d have to sift through 54,000 results)
- Check up on a web site by typing in the url. Say I wanted to chec Wikipedia. Using http://www.wikipedia.com gave me this with data about page views, visitors (120 million a day!) etc
- Or simple things. You’d be surprised what you can find out about “one cup of water“
- Need to find something about a person in history on a specific date – say the Prime Minister of England in 1946
Wolfram|Alpha folk call it “an ambitious, long-term intellectual endeavor” and is never intended to replace Google. But I find it fascinating how a more intelligent algorithm lets us look at information in smarter, specific ways.
Give it a try!