As much as I am a Free Software supporter, I cannot help but be happy when I see a really really awesome piece of software – even if it is proprietary, closed source and all the otherbadness that goes around… And such a piece of jaw-droppingly cool awesomeness is Wolfram Alpha, the Google of science.
Much has been said of Wolfram Alpha that needs not be repeated. Basically, it’s an extended calculating machine. But it also does dates in history, stock rates, conversion of natural constants, etc. And, even greater, it understands to some extend a normal daily-life language. No rigid syntax necessary. Take a look here:
I played around with it while working on some astrophysics exercises – at first just to convert some natural constants. Then as a simple pocket calculator. And then I tried simply typing in the entire problem – with obscure units and everything – and tell it in which units I wanted the output, and voilá:
The original question stated here was:
32*G/(5*c^5)*4/25*(1.4*sun mass)^2*(10 km)^2*(1 mm)^2*((2*pi)/(5 milliseconds))^6 in ergs per second
A mish-mash of words, unit conversions and number crunching. Solved elegantly by listing its assumptions and interpretations and since solving the problem and then giving some alternative units and additional information! Too bad this is not Free Software – but yours truly is one little awestruck and impressed guy!
Just to clear my conscience: the rest of the exercise was solved using the Maxima Texmacs interface. And as soon as I get the time, I’ll have a look at the awesome new Sage software package. It needs some polish, it doesn’t get anywhere near Wolfram Alpha when it comes to that – but it seems very, very promising indeed.