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Wolfram himself was in Boston, preparing to give the first public demonstration the next afternoon. (He’d already done demos for Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and several technology-industry captains, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Google’s Sergey Brin, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.) I sat in Gray’s office, which seemed more like a shrine to the periodic table of the elements than a workplace: samples of nickel, chromium, selenium, sulfur, and dozens more adorned glass shelves. (He proudly opened a lead box and retrieved a dull metallic slab, about the size of two packs of cards. It was 11 pounds of uranium–not enriched, thankfully, but still mildly radioactive.) “It’s a limited notion that the only thing you can do with search today is basically a textual search of existing printed material,” Gray said. “That represents a huge failure of imagination.”

Down the hall, Eric Weisstein, an astronomer and creator of ­MathWorld, the online reference now hosted by Wolfram, sat in an office amid spider-plant cuttings in wax-paper cups (they are especially efficient at purifying air, he explained), putting the finishing touches on a comprehensive unit converter to drive some of Alpha’s results. “If you search the Web, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of sites where people can convert feet to meters,” Weisstein said. “But they are not flexible enough, authoritative enough, and in most cases they don’t have enough coverage.” Such calculators can’t tell you how many grams are in a cup of milk or a cup of flour (the answer varies by substance). And forget about using them to convert a “pinch” (380 milligrams, in the case of salt) or a “drop” (if it’s corn oil, one “metric drop” is 56 milligrams), or a “hogshead” (quite a lot of wine: 248 kilograms), much less units of thermal conductivity, international men’s hat sizes, or any kind of bushel. “Bushel is an important one. A bushel of soybeans is not the same as a bushel of wheat, is not the same as a bushel of volume, ain’t the same as a bushel of mass,” Weisstein said. “We’ve gone and built the world’s best unit converter!”

Throughout the building, and in remote locations, about 150 ­Wolfram staffers labored in similar fashion–some in pretty far-out fields. I found Ed Pegg in his cubicle, immersed in the subject of tiling. At his fingertips was the definitive reference, the 700-page Tilings and Patterns by Grünbaum and Shephard, describing everything from obscure crystallographic patterns in materials to the herringbones and basket weaves of brick walkways. There were so many variations: Islamic tiling patterns (octagons, hexagons, and two types of stars); double spirals made of nine-sided nested wedges; 14 kinds of patterns based on various pentagons. Although the tiling corpus would not be loaded by launch time, Pegg was creating ways for patterns to be combined and calculated. With these and other tools, a textile designer might create an Escher-like pattern (using interconnecting flowers, say, instead of lizards); a chemist might explore how a collection of molecules could fit together; a home­owner might generate a pattern for a new bathroom floor.

But first, Alpha had to launch–and the launch date was just three weeks off. Much remained unclear. Would the natural-language interface work well enough? Would the two supercomputers (which had just arrived at the data center outside of town) bear up on launch day–or would the site crash, as Cuil, the putative Google killer of 2008, had done? And would people really care to learn how many milliseconds it takes a light beam to go from New York to London? In Champaign, the developers were just trying to stamp out glitches. “There is a bit of a daunting feeling of knowing this never ends,” ­Williams confided, “even though this is launching.”

Gray stopped by Williams’s cubicle. The two men huddled over the computer screen, silent for a moment.

“Why won’t it work with two cups of flour and two eggs?” Gray asked, finally.

“Well,” Williams replied, “there’s a bug.”

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Credits: Roy Ritchie
Video by Wolfram Research

Tagged: Computing, Web, Google, data mining, search engine, Wolfram Alpha, Web search

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