Wolfram|Alpha1 has been available to the general public for seven weeks now, allowing plenty of time to test drive it and uncover its strengths and weaknesses. What I've found is that it's a surprisingly powerful tool for the science fiction writer.
Where traditional internet search engines like Google return a list of links that may or may not lead to the answer the user seeks, Wolfram|Alpha attempts to cut out the middle steps and deliver the actual answer directly to the user. Wolfram|Alpha really shines when you're seeking specific factual information. Let's look at a couple of examples of what might arise when conducting research for a science fiction novel.
|47 Ursae Majoris b
Assume I'm working on the next Nebula-winning novel and I've set the story on 47 Ursae Majoris b (an exoplanet I vaguely remember hearing about when it was discovered in 1996). I plug the planet's name into Wolfram|Alpha and immediately get a wealth of information. I now know that 47 Ursae Majoris b is 45.86 light years from Earth and it is located in the constellation Ursa Major.2 About the only thing it doesn't tell me is whether the planet is inhabited. (Some things have to be left to the imagination of the writer!)
Now let's assume that in my novel, the inhabitants of 47 Ursae Majoris b decide to travel to another exoplanet from which they've picked up radio signals indicative of intellegent life