The Greatest Encyclopedia Of All Time?

Think of it as one-stop shopping for all the world's known species. The Encyclopedia of Life, as it's known, is an ambitious and unprecedented project that aims to create a Web page for all 1.8 million named species on the globe today. Plus, it's pretty cool stuff.

The mammoth undertaking is being coordinated by groups like The Field Museum of Natural History, Harvard University, Marine Biological Laboratory, and the Smithsonian Institution -- just to name a few. It will have a budget of $50 million thanks to non-profits like the MacArthur Foundation and Sloan Foundation, and aims to be completed in 10 years. Of course, new species are always being discovered, so the site will be continually updated as a virtual online organism unto itself.

Each page will have information that can be tailored for novices or experts with a slider bar on the side, countless images, an interactive evolutionary tree, detailed maps, and some historical documents. Organizers say the "mash-up" software of today, which allows people to synthesize or aggregate data, coupled with the rise in "wiki" style features make it the perfect time to begin the project. While the pages will be written by scientists, anyone can submit material -- from photos to observations -- to be considered for the site.

Right now there are only a handful of demonstration pages on the site (plus a movie of what it'll look like), but there should be 35,000 fully functioning pages within a year. Maybe one day, with additional funding, extinct species and fossils will be included. Naturally, it'll be a great (and free) resource for students and scientists alike, but organizers also hope it'll serve as a reminder for why saving the environment is so important.

"We hope people will use the encyclopedia of life to improve conservation, maybe to identify areas that should become national parks or marine protected areas, but the encyclopedia itself will not take positions," Jesse Ausubel, one of the lead organizers and program director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation told me. "As a youngster I loved almanacs, atlases, encyclopedias, and here we have a chance to create one of the greatest encyclopedias of all time. All life, in one place on a screen, accessible to everyone."

It's the evolution of the world meets the World Wide Web.
  • Daniel Sieberg

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