Posts Tagged ‘Wolfram Alpha’

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

This afternoon I read an email in my St. Thomas account about the new Wolfram mobile apps for the iPhone/iTouch/iPad and Android, so I went to their site to see what they had to offer. There are three new Wolfram Course Assistance Apps for students ( Algebra, Calculus, and Music Theory) but more are planned for a lot of other courses. I checked out the Music Theory app and it was $1.99 at iTunes.

Then I noticed the Developer Products menu at the top and checked it out. You can download API documentation, download a widget for your website or blog, or build your own widget. I’m a developer, so I decided to build a widget.

Before getting started I decided to watch the demo video from Wolfram and it is very clear. So clear I wondered if it really was as easy as it was portrayed in the video. The demo example retrieved the distance between two cities. After retrieving the information, the speaker showed it is simple to replace the names of the initial cities with variables, and it is easy to add custom labels for the variables. He then showed how easy it is to change the color of the widget, to set the widget titlebar, and a description for users.

Being an amateur astronomer, the choice of topic for my widget was simple. Yes, astronomy. I tried some code I wrote that runs in a Mathematica workbook (it retrieves images of the 8 planets in our solar system) but it didn’t work. I then just tried ‘planets’ and it worked exactly as I hoped.

All you have to do is decide what type of data you want to retrieve and then enter that into the Wolfram|Alpha site. If the site understands the query, it returns the requested data. After seeing my query retrieved information on all of the planets (including images), I created the widget but changed planets to a variable so users can specify a planet of their choice. I entered Jupiter and tested it, and it worked – a lot of good data, Jupiter’s current location in the solar system, and a picture of the largest planet in the solar system. So simple.

I saved my widget with the name Planets in Our Solar System, and you can check it out in the Astronomy section of the Wolfram website at

You have to check this out  – go to Wolfram’s site and look at all of the available widgets. Watch the demo video, then create your own widget for yourself or for others. The only thing I’d mention is that I was unable to embed my widget on this site – I don’t host my own copy of WordPress and had not found a way to be able to add it with my current configuration. I am amazed how little effort it takes to create a widget and hope our readers will explore this aspect of Wolfram|Alpha.

Easy, fun, useful, and free. How can you beat that?

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

I’ve been an amateur astronomer many years, and my schools taught that our solar system has 9 planets. Back in 2005, CalTech Professor Mike Brown discovered Eris, a Pluto-sized planet 9 billion miles from the sun (twice as far away as Pluto) and about the same size as Pluto. This discovery raised the issue of the definition to accurately describe planets. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) met in 2006 and decided the criteria that determines if a body is a planet (original text available from the IAU website) is:

A celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

In the words of the IAU, Pluto and Eris fail to qualify as planets and so they are now classified as dwarf planets. I went to the Wolfram Alpha website and did a search on dwarf planets and received a list of 5 that includes Pluto:

There is a lot more information about the dwarf planets than is shown in this screen capture. Stop by the Wolfram site and check it out here. You might also notice that 1 Ceres, formerly viewed an asteroid in the asteroid belt, is now listed as a dwarf planet. I can handle promotions better than demotions.

Why rehash old news? Because there was a new article by Mike Wall that was published yesterday at Yahoo News (see it here) that asks if the decision to classify Pluto as a dwarf planet is correct based on information we have today. A nice piece (also by Mike Wall) provides new information on Eris’s size and it is available at’s website.

Personally, I think we should reclassify Eris and Pluto as planets. Maybe there are more Pluto-sized bodies further out in the Kuiper Belt. So what? If we can reclassify an asteroid in the asteroid belt, why can’t we add more planets when they are discovered?

What do you think? Should Pluto be returned to the list of planets in our solar system? Chime in if you have an opinion.

Here is a picture of Pluto as it would appear if you were on Charon, a nearby moon: