Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Math Calculators

Let me tell you what I remember about trigonometry. Now that that's done, I can tell you that a simple trigonometry calculator at lets you put in the length of any two sides of a triangle or the length of a side plus the measure of one angle, and the calculator will solve instantly for all remaining sides and angles. This is important because you don't have to remember when to use sin tan or cos, or even worse, inverse sin, cos or tan. This calculator should buy you the better part of a year where you can help your kid with her homework without looking like a complete idiot.

When you need heavy math artillery, check out Wolfram Alpha. I'm not worthy of using Wolfram Alpha. Wolfram Alpha posits itself (I just wanted to say posits itself) as a "computational knowledge engine". If you have a question where the answer is either a number, a graph, a chart, a table, or an almanac-type statistic, asking a question at Wolfram Alpha may be the quickest source for the information. I'm embedding a 7 minute introduction to Alpha. There's a 106 minute introduction available if you have two hours to kill.

Currency conversion? No problem Inflation values of money? Sure. Median height of a 12 year old? It's there. Median height of a 12.5 year old boy? Sure, it even gets that specific.

I thought I'd trick Alpha. I asked it in plain language, "What's the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?" Actually, this was an overhead lob for a search engine for nerds by nerds, and Wolfram Alpha easily handled the request. The response:

there is unfortunately insufficient data to estimate the velocity of an African swallow (even if you specified which of the 47 species of swallow found in Africa you meant)
(asked, but not answered, about a general swallow in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail)

It also gave an option for clarification

Assuming estimated average cruising airspeed of an unladen African swallow | Use estimated average cruising airspeed of an unladen European swallow instead

For that question, it returned an answer of 25mph. (Of course, you have the option of doing unit conversions.)

Because it wasn't quite midnight, I asked, "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck would chuck wood?"

The answer:

A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood.
(according to the tongue-twister, although the paper "The Ability of Woodchucks to Chuck Cellulose Fibers" by P.A. Paskevich and T.B. Shea in Annals of Improbable Research vol. 1, no. 4, pp. 4-9, July/August 1995, concluded that a woodchuck can chuck 361.9237001 cubic centimeters of wood per day)

Now that I know this, I can go to sleep.

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