Nearly 300 years ago, the Swedish medical doctor Carolus Linnaeus published an 11-page book called Systema Natura, in which he proposed dividing all life on Earth into three kingdoms: animal, plant, and mineral.
Over the course of his life, Linnaeus published thirteen editions of the Systema Natura, ultimately filling more than 3,000 pages with his classifications of species. Linnaeus is widely credited with laying the foundations for zoological nomenclature, the internationally recognized system for assigning names to the planet's myriad species.
In Washington on Wednesday morning, a collaborative of the world's leading scientific institutions announced the launch of an ambitious project to extend Linnaeus' work onto the World Wide Web.
Systema Natura 2.0
Dubbed the "Encyclopedia of Life," the project will consist of multimedia Internet pages for all of the 1.8 million species currently identified, and will provide a format for classifying and describing new species. Sample pages of the encyclopedia can be viewed at the project's Web site at www.eol.org.
The initial funding for the Encyclopedia of Life is being provided by a $10 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and a $2.5 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
In the press release announcing the initiative, Sloan Foundation President Ralph E. Gomery hearkened back to Linnaeus' contribution. "For more than 250 years, scientists have catalogued life, and our traditional catalogues have become unwieldy," Gomery said. "The Encyclopedia of Life will provide the citizens of the world a 'macroscope' of almost unimaginable power to find and create understanding of biodiversity across the globe. It will enable us to map and discover things so numerous or vast they overwhelm our normal vision."
The executive director of the Encyclopedia of Life will be Dr. James Edwards, who is currently the executive secretary of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. "The Encyclopedia of Life will ultimately make high-quality, well-organized information available on an unprecedented level," Edwards said. "Even five years ago, we could not create such a resource, but advances in technology for searching, annotating, and visualizing information now permit us, indeed mandate us, to build the Encyclopedia of Life."
WikiLife Vast Potential
The encyclopedia will draw on the work of scientific experts around the world, and material will be collected and added to the resource in a moderated, wiki-style format. To help provide an initial pool of information for the encyclopedia, the Biodiversity Heritage Library is scanning and digitizing tens of millions of pages of scientific literature in scanning centers in London, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Already, more than a million pages have been scanned.
In time, visitors to the encyclopedia will be able to use the site's "My EOL" feature to customize the amount of information displayed about each organism, the language used by the site, and other features.
"The Encyclopedia of Life will be a vital tool for scientists, researchers, and educators across the globe, providing easy access to the latest and best information on all known species," said Jonathan F. Fanton, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. "Technology is allowing science to grasp the immense complexity of life on this planet. Sharing what we know, we can protect Earth's biodiversity and better conserve our natural heritage."