the encyclopedia of life 05.21.2007, 1:53 AM
posted by sol gaitan
E. O. Wilson, one of the world's most distinguished scientists, professor and honorary curator in entomology at Harvard, promoted his long-cherished idea of The Encyclopedia of Life, as he accepted the TED Prize 2007.
The reason behind his project is the catastrophic human threat to our biosphere. For Wilson, our knowledge of biodiversity is so abysmally incomplete that we are at risk of losing a great deal of it even before we discover it. In the US alone, of the 200,000 known species, only about 15% have been studied well enough to evaluate their status. In other words, we are "flying blindly into our environmental future." If we don't explore the biosphere properly, we won't be able to understand it and competently manage it. In order to do this, we need to work together to help create the key tools that are needed to inspire preservation and biodiversity. This vast enterprise, equivalent of the human genome project, is possible today thanks to scientific and technological advances. The Encyclopedia of Life is conceived as a networked project to which thousands of scientists, and amateurs, form around the world can contribute. It is comprised of an indefinitely expandable page for each species, with the hope that all key information about life can be accessible to anyone anywhere in the world. According to Wilson's dream, this aggregation, expansion, and communication of knowledge will address transcendent qualities in the human consciousness and will transform the science of biology in ways of obvious benefit to humans as it will inspire present, and future, biologists to continue the search for life, to understand it, and above all, to preserve it.
The first big step in that dream came true on May 9th when major scientific institutions, backed by a funding commitment led by the MacArthur Foundation, announced a global effort to launch the project. The Encyclopedia of Life is a collaborative scientific effort led by the Field Museum, Harvard University, Marine Biological Laboratory (Woods Hole), Missouri Botanical Garden, Smithsonian Institution, and Biodiversity Heritage Library, and also the American Museum of Natural History (New York), Natural History Museum (London), New York Botanical Garden, and Royal Botanic Garden (Kew). Ultimately, the Encyclopedia of Life will provide an online database for all 1.8 million species now known to live on Earth.
As we ponder about the meaning, and the ways, of the network; a collective place that fosters new kinds of creation and dialogue, a place that dehumanizes, a place of destruction or reconstruction of memory where time is not lost because is always available, we begin to wonder about the value of having all that information at our fingertips. Was it having to go to the library, searching the catalog, looking for the books, piling them on a table, and leafing through them in search of information that one copied by hand, or photocopied to read later, a more meaningful exercise? Because I wrote my dissertation at the library, though I then went home and painstakingly used a word processor to compose it, am not sure which process is better, or worse. For Socrates, as Dan cites him, we, people of the written word, are forgetful, ignorant, filled with the conceit of wisdom. However, we still process information. I still need to read a lot to retain a little. But that little, guides my future search. It seems that E.O. Wilson's dream, in all its ambition but also its humility, is a desire to use the Internet's capability of information sharing and accessibility to make us more human. Looking at the demonstration pages of The Encyclopedia of Life, took me to one of my early botanical interests: mushrooms, and to the species that most attracted me when I first "discovered" it, the deadly poisonous Amanita phalloides, related to Alice in Wonderland's Fly agaric, Amanita muscaria, which I adopted as my pen name for a while. Those fabulous engravings that mesmerized me as a child, brought me understanding as a youth, and pleasure as a grown up, all came back to me this afternoon, thanks to a combination of factors that, somehow, the Internet catalyzed for me.
gary Frost on May 21, 2007 7:32 AM:
Lack of awareness of the content of the biosphere could be equivalent to lack of awareness of the content of the cybersphere. The structure of these two contents may even have shared features. The useful process of life and death is certainly at work in both. The old negative entrophy is exemplified by the paper book, the rare counter product of life and death and the exception to both ecologies.
Martin Kalfatovic on May 22, 2007 5:42 PM:
Of interest to the readers of this blog is the website for the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) - one of the members of the EOL. The BHL will be responsible for converting the heritage taxonomic literature - close to 100 million pages - for use and analysis through the EOL site. On it's own, the BHL will be a major digital library (with Open Access goals, BTW); in conjunction with EOL, it will be a key source for expanding learning about life on the planet. The BHL prototype (w/over 600,000 pages of literature ready to use today) is available at: http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/