Sunday, August 21, 2016

WolframAlpha - A Computational Knowledge Engine

Hello all! Summer is coming to an end and all the kids are going back to school. That could be a good thing for us genealogists who want that extra free time to do research, or it could mean more time trying to remember how in the world to do fractions and binomials. Whichever it is for you, I have a suggestion for a site to try. It is WolframAlpha.

WolframAlpha is not your typical search engine, it is a computational knowledge engine. What does that mean? Well, it doesn't search the web for hits and provide you a list of websites to look at. WolframAlpha tries to give you answers to your questions. You can choose from a variety of topics including Places & Geography, People & History, Dates & Times, and many more. It even has a Genealogy section but that doesn't show up on the homepage list.

On typical search engines, like Google, we are trying to find information on specific relatives such as where they lived, is there an obituary, where are they buried, is there a ship's list, etc. You can't do that kind of search on WolframAlpha. But you can do some interesting things. Maybe you remember when I wrote about RelativeFinder I mentioned that my only famous relative was Paris Hilton. My great-grandfather's brother's wife's first cousin is Paris Hilton's great-great grandmother. Well, what does my relationship look like for this? I asked WolframAlpha to map out great-grandfather's brother's wife's first cousin great-great granddaughter.

WolframAlpha relational mapping. My relationship to Paris Hilton.
Isn't that cool? It can calculate the relationship, determine blood relation, number of generations removed, and at what generation you have common ancestors.

What about dates? I have an obituary where the weekly newspaper was written on Thursdays. The first Thursday in May 1912 was on May 2nd, but the obituary says the person died last Friday. What was the date that he died? I can never remember if a month had 30 or 31 days so I usually search for a clendar from 1912 to do my look-up. But WolframAlpha can do the calculation for you. Just type in Friday before 2 May 1912 and see what happens.

WolframAlpha date calculator.

The calendar results give you the date, Friday, 26 April 1912, but there is more. You can find date formats, how long ago that was from today (in this case the person died 104 years, 3 months and 25 days ago), what day of the year it was, nearby holidays, time of sunrise and sunset, phase of the moon, etc.

Have you ever gone to the cemetery and found a headstone with the date of death and the person's age? Let's pretend the headstone says the person died 5 April 1914 and he was 76 years, 6 months and 28 days old at the time of death. How would you calculate his birth date? In WolframAlpha you write it as a calculation 5 April 1914 - 76 years - 6 months - 28 days.

WolframAlpha computational calendar.
The result is that he was born on Thursday, 7 September 1837, and died on Sunday, 5 April 1914. Oh yeah, it even tells you the day when you provide it a date. It also provides the results in a variety of calendar formats including Jewish, Islamic, Chinese and Mayan and you find out he was a Virgo. Further down on the page it provides additional information like other historical events on that date.

What if I wanted to know the weather in a certain place on a given date? I decided to see about the weather in Dayton, Ohio on 4 July 1962. Was it a nice day for the celebrations? Did it rain? The results give min and max temperatures, conditions, wind speed, humidity, hourly results for temperature, cloud cover, humidity, pressure, wind, sunlight intensity, ranges of historical temperatures for that date, and much more.

WolframAlpha weather data.
One thing I like to do is see how much a dollar was worth compared to today. Several censuses provide the value of personal property such as their house, their annual income, or the rent they were paying. Let's suppose the value of their home in the 1940 census was $5,000. What is that worth today?

WolframAlpha value calculator
From this, we see that the $5,000 house in 1940 is equivalent to $87,810 today. We can also see the inflation factor and a graph showing how that value has changed over time.

Another fantastic thing you can do with WolframAlpha is find out a tricky word. What I mean by this is when you are reading the handwriting, or someone "accidentally" punched a hole in the document and you can only read a few letters of a word and you need to figure out what it said. You do this by typing in the letters you can read and putting an underline in for the missing letters. An example would be b__g__s. I just chose these letters at random to see what it would come up with.

WolframAlpha word suggestions
The list is fairly long. Now all you have to do is look through it to find something that fits. Would it be badgers, baggies, or bangles? Pretty cool, and it helps with your crossword puzzles when you are stuck.

Can WolframAlpha help me with finding out how common a surname is? Of course it can. However, some of the surnames in my family, such as Westerheide and Aufderhaar, don't come up in the search. So I tried a more common name, Meyer. You do the search by typing in the last name Meyer.

WolframAlpha name search
As you can see, Meyer is the 163rd most common name in the US with  a frequency of 1 in every 1,802 people. There are about 150,000 people with this last name and they are predominantly white. There is more information as you go further down the page, including famous people with that name.

There is much more that WolframAlpha can do to expand your genealogy research. Take a look at their examples page and try it out for yourself. They even have a mobile app available for Genealogy and History searches.

Have fun and continue learning about your ancestors.

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