The Encyclopedia of Life

     I am excited about the creation of what may well be one of the greatest scientific achievements of the 21st century!  And it could also be an important contribution to meeting the challenge of our time–the  halting of global warming.

     I am talking about the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), the dream of biologist and conservationist Edmund O. Wilson.  EOL is an electronic encyclopedia covering all organisms known to man–all 1.8 million of them.  EOL’s mission is to advance and preserve knowledge about the world’s species and to make that knowledge readily available to people around the world. 

     Creators of EOL are working to build one infinitely expandable page for every known animal, plant, and microorganism.  Users of the site can customize their experience by choosing content at one of three levels:  beginner, any audience, or specialized.  Thus, the site will be as useful for schoolchildren as it is for scientists. 

     Further, EOL operates like Wikipedia.  Users, even laypeople, will be able to contribute their own text, video, and images to the Encyclopedia. 

     The Encyclopedia of Life went online in February, with its first 40,000 species.  And the Encyclopedia is growing, in terms of the number of species covered, the amount of information offered for each, and in terms of technological possibilities.  For instance, users will soon be able to view selected natural specimens housed in museums, research facilities, and other scientific collections in more detail than ever before, thanks to the Microsoft program Photosynth.

     Why is this first-ever Encyclopedia of Life good news for the earth?  If we are to save the planet, Wilson explains, we first need to understand what’s here.  And the EOL is the most ambitious attempt ever to do that.  The 1.8 million species we now know make up only about 10% of the planet’s species, scientists believe.  And developing a database for those 1.8 million species is essential for discovering the other 90% of the earth’s species, according to Wilson.      

     The EOL has come about none too soon.  Global warming and the destruction of natural habitats threaten to render half the species on earth extinct by the end of this century, scientists say.  Without a central source of indepth information about life on the planet, any unified effort to halt global warming is made more difficult.  And that central information source will be the EOL. 

     The EOL has come to fruition this year thanks to a talk Wilson gave last year.  In it, he said he dreamed that funders would come forward to support this ambitious, important project.  And they did.  With major funding then offered by the MacArthur Foundation and the Sloan Foundation, the project got off the ground.

     Curious to know more about a particular animal or plant?  Want to see some great photos?  I encourage you to join the millions around the world who have already visited the Encyclopedia of Life.  Just click on www.eol.org.  –April Moore   

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