From the Castle | Science | Smithsonian

From the Castle

Life on the Web

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Follow a bumblebee in flight, then observe it resting on a sunflower. What is it doing? Why? How does it fit into the natural world? The Smithsonian Institution is a leading partner in an exciting new initiative called the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), an unprecedented Internet site designed to help answer such questions. Over the next five years, the EOL will generate a million Web pages, help digitize a large portion of scientific literature, generate educational materials for schools and universities, and contribute to new scientific analysis and synthesis.

The idea behind this ambitious project is deceptively simple: construct a Web site accessible through a single Web portal for each of the 1.8 million known living species on earth. Like a good field guide, each entry will present authoritative and scientifically verified information about such things as geographic range, habitat, natural history and conservation status. Each site will also offer interactive illustrations showing, for example, how a species fits into the evolutionary tree as well as detailed maps and pictures—even, in many cases, sound and video clips. Each site's opening pages will be designed for the general public, but they will also provide links to specialized, scientific literature for molecular biologists, geneticists, teachers, horticulturists, conservationists and other specialists.

In a world of shrinking resources, this information will help people make wiser decisions about preserving our natural world. The EOL will also give users access to the Smithsonian's unsurpassed collections, strengthen the Institution's collaborations with other organizations and give new global reach to our core mission—the increase and diffusion of knowledge.

The idea is compelling, but it is not new. Smithsonian scientist Terry Erwin and others have long advocated the creation of a comprehensive Web catalog of the natural world. And in a 2003 article, "Encyclopedia of Life," the well-known entomologist E. O. Wilson (once my graduate school adviser, now a colleague and friend) envisioned "an electronic page for each species of organism on Earth...a summary of everything known."

Two forward-looking institutions, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, have generously given $12.5 million for the first two years of the five-year EOL project and pledged a like amount when it meets expectations.

The EOL's headquarters, or secretariat, will be based at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). But the EOL is a global enterprise, involving scores of institutions and thousands of scientists. All of its partners will participate in its success. NMNH and Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology will lead efforts to maximize the EOL's educational uses. A group organized through the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, will provide leadership on software development to access information in Web sites all over the world. Another group, coordinated by the Field Museum in Chicago, will head up activities to ensure that the EOL will facilitate scientific discoveries about biodiversity, conservation and evolution of life. And the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a consortium of natural history libraries here and in Great Britain, will scan and digitize the vast amount of information available to the EOL.

This great endeavor is one of many ways the talented professionals throughout the Smithsonian will strengthen the public's trust in our work as we improve our capacity to bring new knowledge and our collections to more than 300 million Americans and billions of people worldwide. So that in the future, when your curiosity takes flight, the EOL and the Smithsonian will offer destinations galore.

Cristián Samper, Acting Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, played a lead role in creating the Encyclopedia of Life.

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