Life: you could look it up

In the Science News section of today’s New York Times, I learned about The Encyclopedia of Life. Its goal is to create an online page for each of the world’s 1.8 million known species.

Now that’s a book. And look at how it’s being put together:

“If we had sat down at a blank screen and started to write, word by word, preparing the encyclopedia would have been virtually impossible,� said James Edwards, the project’s executive director.

The designers wrote software that could automatically draw information — maps, DNA sequences, bird songs, photographs, evolutionary trees, and so on — from many sources and organize them in one place in one standard format. Ten of the biggest natural history libraries in the world are scanning millions of pages of scientific literature, which computers are text-mining to add more information to species pages.

An initial version will have some 30,000 species, including 24 highly detailed exemplar pages “to show just how much information the encyclopedia can handle.” And, because the project aims at a wide audience, a slider on the page will let the reader determine the amount of content, from novice to specialist.

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