MONTEREY, California (AFP) — A premier edition of an unprecedented online Encyclopedia of Life was unveiled Wednesday as part of an ambitious project to catalogue the 1.8 million species known on Earth.
The first pages were unofficially made available on the Internet at www.eol.org a day earlier, encountering such fierce demand that overwhelmed computer servers crashed for about two hours.
The encyclopedia was then unveiled at the prestigious Technology, Entertainment and Design gathering in California, and despite being offline for a time, the aspiring catalogue of Earth's precious biodiversity logged more than 11 million hits in its first six hours.
The project, which creators believe will take a decade to complete, stems from a "wish" scientist Edward Osbourne Wilson made at an annual TED conference in Monterey last year.
TED was launched in 1984 by US architect Richard Saul Wurman as a new-age think tank. Renowned thinkers and doers gather to explore ways to take action in the face of opportunities and challenges facing the planet.
Each year, three people get TED prizes consisting of "a wish to change the world" plus 100,000 dollars and the support of conference attendees in making it real.
Wilson wished for an online encyclopedia of life and how it is inter-related to serve as a guide and inspiration to protect biodiversity, with the first 30,000 pages now unveiled.
"The Encyclopedia of Life will have a profound and creative effect in science," Wilson said.
"It aims not only to summarize all that we know of Earth's life forms, but also to accelerate the discovery of the vast array that remain unknown. This great effort promises to lay out new directions for research in every branch of biology."
Consolidating the information about the planet's 1.8 million species in a single place is unprecedented.
"It is exciting to anticipate the scientific chords we might hear once 1.8 million notes are brought together through this instrument," said EOL executive director Jim Edwards.
Later this year EOL will let people contribute pictures, video, facts or other content to the website "wiki-style."
Wikis are web pages that viewers can modify as they wish, a well-known example being eponymous Wikipedia.
"There are very many species for which we do not have high quality images or text," Edwards said. "Think of these pages as invitations to contribute to EOL."
The encyclopedia's creators predict its uses will include tracking how diseases spread and determining how creatures and plants adapt or succumb to climate changes.
"The Encyclopedia of Life can raise our sights and expand our view of life on Earth," said Jonathan Fanton, president of the John and Catherine MacArthur Foundation, which provides millions of dollars in funding for the project.
"Just as a microscope reveals and helps us better understand the small and particular, the EOL will allow us to discern patterns previously unseen. What was once viewed by many as 'wishful thinking' is now entirely possible and underway."
Along with the support of major US universities, philanthropic foundations and biology institutes, EOL is getting backing from technology giants Adobe, Microsoft and the Wikimedia Foundation.
Web design firm Avenue A/Razorfish crafted the basic template for the EOL species pages.
"EOL is a good example of the way the World Wide Web can be used innovatively to assemble diverse kinds of information in an easy-to-use, ever-growing compendium," Edwards said.
"It can accommodate almost any kind of information about species and, unlike a published book, can be updated instantly."
This year's prize winners are cosmologist Neil Turok, author Dave Eggers, and former British Roman Catholic nun turned religion authority Karen Armstrong. They will reveal their wishes before the conference ends Saturday.
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