Real Science

Friday, 8 June 2007

Encyclopaedia of Life

The Encyclopaedia of Life has just been launched. This is a global effort to create an online record of every known form of life on the planet - all 1.8 million species.

For the first time in the history of Earth, everyone will have instant internet access to all known living species. This includes species that have just been discovered.

"The Encyclopaedia of Life will provide valuable biodiversity and conservation information to anyone, anywhere, at any time," said Dr. James Edwards. He is named today as executive director of the Encyclopaedia of Life.

The Encyclopaedia will use the latest web technology for searching, annotating and visualising information. Over the next 10 years it will create internet pages for all 1.8 million known species. It will make it much easier to classify the millions of species still to be discovered.

The web pages will provide text, photographs, video, sound recordings, maps and other multimedia information on each species. These pages will be at

The Encyclopaedia will be a moderated wiki for scientists around the world. This means that many of them will be able to add text, images and other forms of knowledge. Then a group of experts will study what they have done and decide if it should be included.

The Encyclopaedia will be a vital tool for scientists, researchers and educators, says Jonathan F. Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation.

"Technology is allowing science to grasp the immense complexity of life on this planet. By sharing what we know we can protect Earth's biodiversity and better conserve our natural heritage."

Scientists have been cataloguing life for 250 years, said Ralph E. Gomory, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. "But our traditional catalogues have become unwieldy."

The Encyclopaedia of Life will be almost unimaginably powerful, he added. "It will enable us to map and discover things so numerous or vast that they overwhelm our normal vision."

Scientists began creating web pages for species in the 1990s. But the internet had to mature first, before a fast, efficient and comprehensive Encyclopaedia could be created.

Encyclopaedia of Life efforts, including scanning key research journals, have been under way for over a year. But work accelerated recently because of a discussion of the Encyclopaedia of Life by eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson. This took place at the March 2007 Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference.

The professor emeritus at Harvard University "wished" for an Encyclopaedia of Life during his TED speech. He noted that "our knowledge of biodiversity is so incomplete that we are at risk of losing a great deal of it before it is ever discovered."

He called for a modern, dynamic portrait of the living Earth.

"I wish that we will work together to help create the key tool that we need to inspire preservation of Earth's biodiversity: the Encyclopaedia of Life," Wilson said at TED. "What excites me is that since I first put forward this idea, science has advanced, technology has moved forward.

"Today, the practicalities of making this encyclopaedia real are within reach as never before."

The Encyclopaedia of Life will give users the chance to personalise their learning through a "my eol" feature. The site will be written in all the main languages. It will connect scientists studying life from ants and apples to zebras.

The initial work will look at species of animals, plants and fungi. Microbes will be included later.

To provide depth behind the portal page for each species, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) will scan and digitise tens of millions of pages of the scientific literature. Its scanning centres are already at work in London, Boston and Washington DC. It has scanned the first 1.25 million pages for the Encyclopaedia.

"I dream that in a few years wherever a reference to a species occurs on the internet, there will be a hyperlink to its page in the Encyclopaedia of Life," said Edwards.


More help with words











What's it all about?

  1. How many species of life are now known?
  2. An encyclopaedia is a kind of book with lots of information in it. Is the Encyclopaedia of Life a book?
  3. Who will be able to read and use the information in the Encyclopaedia of Life?
  4. How will they be able to get at this information?
  5. The latest web technology, the writer says, will be used to do three things with information about different species. What are those three things?
  6. Choose one of these and explain in your own words what it means.
  7. Once all the species we know about today are included in the Encyclopaedia, will the work be finished?
  8. Which sentence in the story gave you the answer to the last question?
  9. How long will it take before all the species we know about now are included in the Encyclopaedia?
  10. The writer lists a number of different ways of presenting information. State three of these.
  11. The new encyclopaedia is a wiki. What is a wiki?
  12. What does it mean when a wiki is moderated?
  13. By "traditional catalogues" the writer means big books containing lots of information about different species. What has made these become unwieldy?
  14. This new encyclopaedia is different from these traditional catalogues because the information is online. Why does this mean it will not become unwieldy?
  15. Web pages for some species have been around on the internet for a while. But these were not comprehensive. What does this mean?
  16. Besides being comprehensive the new encyclopaedia will also be fast and efficient. What does this mean?
  17. What reason did Professor Wilson give for wishing for an Encyclopaedia of Life?
  18. In your own words what does "inspire preservation of Earth's biodiversity" mean?
  19. Can you think of one thing that scientists or ordinary people with an interest in living things will be able to do with this new Encyclopaedia that they could not have done before?

Encyclopaedia of Life UK US



What kind of story is this?
Learning to do science is about learning to think. Experiments, direct teaching, group activities and discussions all have a part to play. So do science news stories.

Like other non-fiction texts, science stories contain different kinds of statements. To get at the science behind the words - and to make reading them an active experience - students should pull a text apart and explore the kinds of statement it contains.

We've met some of these in the later questions of the previous activity. Science news stories usually include the aims of the research or reasons for doing it. They often contain a hypothesis. Sometimes evidence for a hypothesis is given, or a hypothesis is used to make a prediction. Towards the end of a story the direction of future research the scientists are planning is often discussed, as well as outstanding questions the research will be designed to answer.

All these types of statement occur in some science stories. Virtually all science stories, however, will contain statements of the following four types:
  • new findings or developments;
  • the technology and methods the scientists used;
  • previous or accepted knowledge, which may or may not be supported by the new findings;
  • issues, implications and applications of the research.

So the next activity is designed to engage students with the latest science news by exploring the meaning and structure of a story as revealed by the content and balance of these four statement types:

Pulling it apart

In groups students should read through the story looking for new findings or developments. Once they have reached agreement, or at least consensus, and have underlined all the statements about what the scientists have just discovered or achieved, they can compare and discuss.

In groups they should go through the story again looking for the technology and methods the scientists used in their research. Once they have reached agreement or consensus, and have underlined the statements that talk about the methods and equipment the scientists used, they can compare and discuss..

They should repeat the activity for existing knowledge.

Any areas of disagreement in these activities - whether among the students or between teacher and students - should be regarded as opportunities for discussion rather than errors to be corrected.

Having fully engaged with the latest science news through the above activities, students will be far better able to talk and think about the science and its implications than someone who has simply read about it in a newspaper or watched a brief item on television.

Now it's time for them to get to grips with the issues raised by the research.

Young people have opinions. But school science traditionally allowed little scope for forming and expressing these - which is why it turned many of them off the subject for life.

Putting it together again

In groups, students should read through the latest story looking for issues, implications and applications. Once they have reached agreement, or at least consensus, and have underlined all the relevant statements in the story, they can compare and discuss.

Having done all this the students are well armed to explore the issues raised by the story. A suggested discussion topic specific to this new story is provided below.

Topic for discussion, research or pupil presentations

The internet provides more opportunities than ever before for schoolchildren to tackle real science and communicate with real scientists, who are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of sharing their ideas and inspiration with young people.

The designers of the new Encyclopaedia of Life have raised a number of questions about their ambitious new project. They are:

  1. How do we inspire the public to really participate in this initiative?
  2. How do we ensure that underdeveloped countries, where many undiscovered species lie,
    get involved?
  3. How do we persuade the many existing owners of valuable biological databases to get
  4. What are creative funding solutions?

In groups, pupils should choose two of these, brainstorm answers to them, and select the best three to present to the rest of the class in as much detail as possible.

The class should then select the best, and email them to the organisers at Encyclopedia of Life They might get no response, but you never know. And there is never any harm in trying to bring real science into the classroom.

Tips for science class discussions and groupwork

No 49

Many activities call for a formal class discussion and shorter discussions will happen all the time, as a summary to an activity, or because some interesting issue has been in the news. Not all discussion leads to learning, but the better managed and the clearer the objectives the more students will learn. They usually enjoy it whether
they learn or not and sometimes this is fine.

Ground rules

One option is for the teacher to provide a list of ground rules, and allow students to discuss the reasons for the rules. It is often better to get the students to agree their own list of ground rules so that they have 'ownership'. A
list might include the following points:

  • listen
  • don't interrupt
  • respect other people's contributions and opinions
  • allow others to contribute

Post the ground rules on the class notice board, and remind students about them before a discussion or as and when needed.

From Science for Public Understanding


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