New Web Encyclopedia to Cover Every Living Thing

The impulse to compile knowledge is about as old as knowledge itself. In the fourth century B.C., Aristotle set out to record everything that could then be known—of course there was a lot less of it then. His collected writings have been viewed as the first encyclopedia. Some 400 years later, Pliny the Elder wrote "Naturalis Historia," a 37-volume account of the natural world. The modern encyclopedia as we know it (think Funk and Wagnalls) was rooted in the 18th and 19th centuries, and uprooted by Wikipedia, the free Web-based effort edited by an army of volunteers instead of a handful of scholars.

Now the Encyclopedia of Life will endeavor to document online every one of the world's 1.8 million named species—each getting its own dedicated Web page. "This is one of those great things that will help everyone," says Cristián Samper, the acting secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. "It's one of those fun projects for humanity."

A well-endowed one at that. The Encyclopedia of Life—a collaboration of the Smithsonian, Harvard University, Chicago's Field Museum, the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass., the Biodiversity Heritage Library and the Missouri Botantical Garden—has already received $12.5 million in grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and has been promised more than an additional $10 million. And like Wikipedia, the centralized database of every known living thing will be free and open source when it goes live early next year (in the meantime, the EOL site, which launched this week, comprises four sample pagesand an inspirational video).

Samper, a biologist by training and the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History since 2003, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker about his vision for the Encyclopedia of Life. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: So the Encyclopedia of Life will give a Web page to everything that's alive?
Cristián Samper:
Everything that we know that has been described that's alive. There's a lot more that hasn't been described. We know of and have described about 1.8 million species, and our goal is to pull together all the information we know about everything that has been described. After that we'll keep adding information as things keep getting discovered. There's a lot more out there.

How often are new discoveries made?
Every day. Last year we found a new species of whale, a 60-foot whale. You can discover species of insects on the National Mall all the time.

I believe those are called "senators."
[Laughs] Well, I'll leave that to you. But there's a lot of new stuff out there and we're still discovering it. We're not only talking about microorganisms. There are new species of primates and birds we're discovering every day pretty much.

For about a decade scientists have tried to compile such a list, which hasn't quite panned out.
There were a couple attempts. I think a lot of people have been doing bits and pieces of this. The bird people have been doing some bird pages, and the fish people have been doing a few. We estimate there are probably 60,000 or 70,000 at this point in one form or another. What we're going to try to do is build on that, pull all of that together and get all the rest done. This is more than just doing a list. This is actually going to have, based on that list, a Web page for every species with access to the literature and eventually even the specimens in collections in museums. It's much bigger than doing just a checklist—it's an interactive tool.

And such a tool would be helpful to, say, nonscientists or researchers in the developing world?
Absolutely. One of the things we're going to do with this is actually just pull together the information and make it available for free to anyone in the world. Historically, much of the information about biodiversity, much of the expertise, has been at institutions like the Smithsonian. What we can do by doing this is take our libraries, take our specimens, take our knowledge and actually put it at the fingertips of a scientist working in Bolivia. Not only put the information out there, but engage these people in the process of doing taxonomy and systematics.

You're referring to the fact that this is going to be an open-source project, almost in the mode of Wikipedia?
Yeah, it is going to be open source. We want to be careful. Yes, anyone will be able to contribute, but we are going to have an authoritative page that will be reviewed by specialists. On the one hand you want to make it completely open so anyone can contribute, but at the same time quality control is going to be key. Actually the Wikimedia Foundation [which already has its own Wikispecies page] is one of the institutions on the extended council that's helping us.

And for expert users or specialists there will be original source material available as well.
One of the things we're going to do as part of this is digitize the literature. We're looking at about 50 million pages of literature that we're going to digitize. We've already done the first 1.2 million just to make sure it worked. We will be able to put that literature there so you can actually zoom in and look at the original text by [Carl] Linnaeus or look at a recent publication. So you can go to the original literature without having to go to an actual library. And of course down the road what we can do is connect us with things like GenBank and mapping systems. The potential is enormous for pulling the information together.

The last Smithsonian secretary, Lawrence M. Small, quit in March after questions were raised about his management and spending habits. In April senators told the Smithsonian that it needs to create a new, more accountable management structure or risk jeopardizing federal and public support. What steps are you taking as interim secretary?
We're looking at some of those elements of course. We're reviewing our governance and trying to make sure we can improve some of our practises.

And in addition to restructuring, there's a search on for a new permanent secretary .
The board of regents just met on Monday and have appointed a search committee so they're going to start the process of recruiting the next secretary.

Are you interested in the position?
I'm sure it would be an honor. But I've got a great job running the Natural History Museum. For now I'm just going to try to move the Smithsonian forward.