WolframAlpha: A valuable tool for chemistry teachers and students

WolframAlpha is a valuable website for chemistry teachers and students. I have found this website to be a wonderful source of information and a great time saver. It also has tremendous computational capabilities. The purpose of this report is to describe some of the chemical applications of WolframAlpha.

The easiest way to get to WolframAlpha is to type the name into the search box of your browser. In order to get information about any element or compound, simply type the name or formula into the search box and a wealth of information, including thermodynamic data, will come up. You can compare two or more compounds by just typing names of each separated by a comma. If you want specific information, such as the density of diamond, type in “diamond density.” If you need to prepare 4.0 L of 0.0256 M sodium chloride solution, type the description on the search line and Wolfram will compute the number of grams you will need in order to prepare the solution. If you type in “0.0014 M acetic acid,” Wolfram will compute many of the properties of the solution including the pH and the degree of dissociation. Calculations involving very low concentrations of weak acids will include contributions from the autoionization of water to the pH. A 2x10-8 M acetic acid solution will not have a pH>7. WolframAlpha can also do problems associated with chemical equations.

I often use WolframAlpha to quickly and conveniently obtain the values of important physical constants such as the Boltzmann, Planck, Faraday or gas constants. It can be used to do conversions of calories to joules, atmospheres to pascals, moles to grams and vice versa.

WolframAlpha has tremendous mathematical computational capabilities. It can do regression analysis using linear, quadratic, cubic or exponential fits to data. In order to see how to use these applications click on Examples and then select Statistics and Data Analysis. WolframAlpha is very user friendly. It can solve equations of various levels of complexity. For example, in doing a weak acid ionization problem, simply type the quadratic equation into the search box and WolframAlpha will compute the two roots. It also shows a plot of the quadratic function indicating the two points on the curve where it equals zero. The website can also be used to compute integrals, take derivatives and do problems involving matrices and linear algebra. Examine the example section on Mathematics to see how to do these calculations.

It should also be mentioned that WolframAlpha has a number of smart phone and iPad apps on various subjects including chemistry. I have not explored the chemistry app and so cannot comment on its effectiveness. In addition to its applications to chemistry, WolframAlpha is a great source of information on other subjects. It is particularly good in dealing with astronomy and physics. I often use it to get a better sense of numbers that I come across while reading the paper. If I read that a million acres of forest were destroyed in a fire, I type “million acres” into the search line and learn that it corresponds to 1.01 times the total area of Rhode Island. Having lived in Rhode Island for many years, I find this comparison very useful.

In summary, WolframAlpha is an invaluable resource for teachers and students of any subject. Since I first started using it about a year ago, its data base has greatly expanded and will get better and better as time passes. I also find that as I get more experience in using it, it becomes a more effective tool.