Wolfram|Alpha for Science Fiction Writers

This article originally appeared on TomorrowSage.com

47 Ursae Majoris bWolfram|Alpha1 has been available to the general public for seven weeks now, allowing plenty of time to test drive it and uncover its strengths and weaknesses. What I’ve found is that it’s a surprisingly powerful tool for the science fiction writer.

Where traditional internet search engines like Google return a list of links that may or may not lead to the answer the user seeks, Wolfram|Alpha attempts to cut out the middle steps and deliver the actual answer directly to the user. Wolfram|Alpha really shines when you’re seeking specific factual information. Let’s look at a couple of examples of what might arise when conducting research for a science fiction novel.

Extrasolar Planets
Assume I’m working on the next Nebula-winning novel and I’ve set the story on 47 Ursae Majoris b (an exoplanet I vaguely remember hearing about when it was discovered in 1996). I plug the planet’s name into Wolfram|Alpha and immediately get a wealth of information. I now know that 47 Ursae Majoris b is 45.86 light years from Earth and it is located in the constellation Ursa Major.2 About the only thing it doesn’t tell me is whether the planet is inhabited. (Some things have to be left to the imagination of the writer!)

Now let’s assume that in my novel, the inhabitants of 47 Ursae Majoris b decide to travel to another exoplanet from which they’ve picked up radio signals indicative of intellegent life — Epsilon Eridani b. I plug the names of both exoplanets into Wolfram|Alpha and discover the two are 50.81 light years apart. Based on my novel, I “know” the inhabitants of 47 Ursae Majoris b can only reach about 70% of the speed of light, so I ask Wolfram|Alpha how long the trip to Epsilon Eridani b will take at .7c. It turns out they’ll be traveling for 72.6 years (not counting time to accelerate and decelerate).

Sept. 4, 1963For this first test, Wolfram|Alpha gave me all of the information I needed and the research took a fraction of the time it would have using traditional search engines.

Historical Settings
For my next Nebula-winning novel, the protagonist is thrown back in time3 to a random date I’ve just pulled out of thin air — September 4, 1963. But I know nothing about that date ... not even what day of the week it fell on. Let’s plug the date into Wolfram|Alpha and see what we get.

I immediately learn that September 4, 1963 was a Wednesday, that the time difference from today is 45 years, 10 months and 2 days,4 sunrise was at 6:19 am U.S. Central Time, and there was a waning gibbous moon that day. Now for my novel, the protagonist arrived in Chicago after traveling back in time. I want to make sure I have the details correct, so I ask Wolfram|Alpha to tell me the “weather in Chicago on September 4, 1963.” I learn that on that date in that city, it was 63 degrees Fahrenheit, overcast and rainy, with light winds up to 8 mph. Perfect dreary weather for my character to drop out of a time portal, lost in space and time.

Of course there are limits to the historical information available through Wolfram|Alpha, but the tool does an amazing job extrapolating for those cases where it doesn’t have definitive data. Building on the previous example, I asked Wolfram|Alpha to tell me the “weather in Rome on January 17, 1193.” It tells me the weather data for that day is not available, but then makes predictions based on overall weather data for that location (guessing an average temperature of 45 degrees Fahrenheit).5

Other Areas of Expertise
Wolfram|Alpha serves up an impressive amount of hard data that can help science fiction writers build their stories. You can query formulas for everything from algebra to organic chemistry.6 Wolfram|Alpha even has a sense of humor. Ask it, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” and Wolfram|Alpha responds:

“Angels are pure intelligences, not material, but limited, so that they have location in space, but not extension. Therefore, an infinity of angels can be located on the head of a pin. (according to Dorothy Sayers (who also maintains that the question is simply a debating exercise))”

These examples barely scratch the surface of what Wolfram|Alpha can do. Overall, my experience using Wolfram|Alpha as a writing resource has been a positive one. In the past when I needed some fact to add credibility to something I was writing, I would use Google to find a data source, explore the links Google provided, and hopefully find the fact I was seeking. Now I ask Wolfram|Alpha and — more often than not — it provides the fact I’m seeking. Often (as an added bonus) it also provides related facts that I hadn’t even thought about, but which suddenly become an integral part of what I’m writing.

If you write science fiction, or any other genre that makes use of factual data, I encourage you to check out Wolfram|Alpha.

  1. If you’ve somehow missed all the hype, Wolfram|Alpha calls itself a “computational knowledge engine.” It essentially is a new kind of search engine. Its ambitious goal is to provide all objective data in a way that allows users to crunch, convert, compute and compare that data. []
  2. In fact, Wolfram|Alpha provides a star map and tells me the exoplanet’s exact location in the sky based on the fact I’m in Milwaukee at the moment. []
  3. No doubt this character was playing around with Red Matter, the amazing McGuffin from the latest Star Trek film that — defying the laws of physics — enables black hole-powered time travel. []
  4. Useful information when wondering how far back in time my character has traveled. []
  5. Wolfram|Alpha also points out that it is using an extrapolated Gregorian calendar for that date, just in case I’d forgotten how the official calendars have shifted between 1193 and 2009. []
  6. For example,  ask about eicosapentaenoic acid and you’ll learn the chemical formula is CH_3(CH_2CH=CH)_5(CH_2)_3CO_2H. []

About the author

I am a writer, marketing practitioner and astronomer-in-training. My interests include science, technology and the future of just about everything. You can learn more from my Bio page.