Monday, July 11, 2011

Show your working

At this time thirty years ago, I was spending a lot of my time doing hundreds of calculus problems in preparation for my Higher School Certificate. I’m sure I did far more than were necessary but I probably crushed that part of my mathematics exam papers and they did help me through a few sticky problems in my university physics classes after that.

Michael - the days before dog hairI guess these problems were my 1980s version of sudoku puzzles, there not being much else to stretch one’s brain on in rural NSW back then. After a brief encounter with computer programming at a summer school in Sydney I did think that I could come up with a program to work through all of these sorts of questions automatically, but there were no computers available to me when I got home. A few years later, a rather bright guy by the name of Stephen Wolfram did create a program called Mathematica which achieved that goal and much more. Remarkably there’s now even a home edition for students and hobbyists.


More recently Wolfram and his researchers have produced an “answer engine” called Wolfram|Alpha which goes a step further by striving to solve questions posed in everyday language. There’s a TED video explaining this and some of his other projects. The website is free to use – it’s a bit like Google except that instead of searching for a pre-formulated answer, it calculates the results from its database of information.

I bought a mobile version of W|A to play around with – it’s rather handy for directly attacking little questions I pose myself. Jean has taken to referring to me as “Mikipedia” as I always need to dive straight into an information source when some trivial detail pops up in conversation.

Foreigners tend to have only a hazy idea of how big Australia is. I can say it’s roughly the same size as the lower 48 states of the USA, but for your average European that doesn’t mean much. Who knows how big Europe is – do you mean geographically, or just the EU area or the Eurozone or perhaps the countries who participate in the Eurovision Song Contest? It’s a shifting target; better to compare smaller areas. Usually I compare a single European country with my home state of NSW.
France-NSW area  France-NSW population

Questions of size and population are easily put to Wolfram|Alpha , and you can ask it to show its working. France is only about 2/3 the size of NSW, but has 10 times the population. You could throw the whole Gers department into some corner of the state and it would probably fit inside someone’s sheep station. On the other hand, the gated terrace area around my house here is bigger than my entire front and back yards in Sydney.

Wolfram|Alpha still has a long way to go. I tried asking it some questions relating to the geography of the United Kingdom, but it interprets each of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain, UK  as being the same as the others. Sometimes you have to use roundabout ways to get a response and then with trial and error you finally work out the short way of asking a particular variety of question. It’s just another dialect to learn; I have the same challenges here when I fumble around in French.

fourth cousinfourth cousin once removed - WolframAlpha - Google Chrome 22072011 13931 AM  I was contacted a few days ago on by a distant relative whose first shared ancestors with me are my 3xgreat grandfather Samuel Jones and his wife Jane Woolcock. As we’re of the same generation, we’re 4th cousins and thus share only one tenth of one percent of bloodlines – assuming there’s been no other recent intermarriage of our ancestors. If we were cousins once removed, then it would halve that shared blood. W/A does the family math

Another of W|A’s little tricks is comparing items in a list. For instance, put in “English, French, Latin” and it will compare their linguistic family trees and give you a few interesting factoids.

I tried putting in the cities roughly corresponding to the outer boundaries of my travel next month: Auch (our departmental capital), Malmö (in Sweden) and Prestatyn (the northern end of the Offa’s Dyke trail):
Auch-Malmö-PrestatynIf I put that travel triangle onto a map of Australia it would all still fit into NSW, even though I’m travelling out of France through Belgium, Germany, and Denmark into Sweden and then hopping over to England and Wales.

Back home I would travel all that way and still not pass more than 10% of France’s population. Auch to Malmö is almost exactly the same as the distance from Brisbane to Adelaide.

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