Science Saturday

This edition of Science Saturday was inspired by last night’s excellent Bill Moyers Journal, which airs on PBS every Friday night in Pigspittle (check your local listings for a broadcast near you).

The show featured a half-hour interview with biologist E. O. Wilson who won this year’s TED Prize (along with President Bill Clinton and photojournalist James Nachtwey). The TED Prize, in itself, is fascinating: the winners are granted a wish, which TED [which stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design] members then set about trying to fulfill by contributing money and spreading the word. Wilson’s wish is to create the Encyclopedia of Life. [View his charmingly entertaining TED Talk here.]

Fortunately, much work has already started on this ambitious effort to document all 1.8 million named species in the world. The Field Museum of Natural History, Harvard University, Marine Biological Laboratory, Smithsonian Institution, and Biodiversity Heritage Library joined together to initiate the project in 2006, but the recent contribution of $10 million from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Wilson’s prize at the TED Conference have accelerated the work. According to the EOL’s May 2007 press release,

Over the next 10 years, the Encyclopedia of Life will create Internet pages for all 1.8 million species currently named. It will expedite the classification of the millions of species yet to be discovered and catalogued as well. The pages, housed at, will provide written information and, when available, photographs, video, sound, location maps, and other multimedia information on each species. Built on the scientific integrity of thousands of experts around the globe, the Encyclopedia will be a moderated wiki-style environment, freely available to all users everywhere.

Why does Wilson think this unwieldy project is so vital to the world? As he explained to Moyers in last night’s program, scientists have only identified 10 percent of the world’s species:

Consider how ignorant we are and what difference it makes. We don’t know the great majority of the kinds of creatures living in most ponds or patches of woods that you would pick even around here. This means that when we’re trying to stabilize the environment, we’re trying to get sustainable development– we’re trying to stop the ecosystem from collapsing in the face of global warming or whatever. We really need to know what’s in each one of those habitats. It’s like undertaking a medical examination by your doctor– maybe not feeling too well, you know? Something’s happening but your doctor examines you and he only knows ten percent of what’s inside you, in all of the organs. We need then to move ecology way ahead of where it is today, really change things…

Speaking of really changing things, also featured on last night’s show was a re-broadcast of a 2004 segment on the Earth Conservation Corps, a group of at-risk young adults in Washington, D.C., who are changing their environment, literally and figuratively. ECC members give 1700 hours to cleaning up their local environment—the banks of the Anacostia River, the Southeast section of the nation’s capital that has been an environmental disaster area and a home for violence. The members work to protect endangered wildlife and provide community service to their neighbors and peers. Corps members earn a stipend, health insurance and child care benefits as well as a nearly $5,000 scholarship.

The chilling reality of the violence these kids face is brought home in the documentary, as it tells how an average of one Corps member each year is murdered. Profile info on Moyers’ web site states, “According to the Corps’ records, one of their members was beaten to death. One was raped and killed. Another was riding his bike when he got caught in the middle of a shootout. Three were shot execution-style.” And just this spring, one of the Corps’ leading members, Aaron Leon Teeter, was shot to death outside his home.

But theirs is a greater story of hope: more than 400 young adults—85 percent of the Corps—have graduated from the program, with many going on to careers in environmental protection and science. It’s a worthwhile cause that struggles to keep afloat. Donate here.

2 Comments Science Saturday

  1. Martin Kalfatovic July 7, 2007 at 11:40 am

    Thanks for the great post. FYI, the Biodiversity Heritage Library project is up and underway with nearly a million pages of taxonomic text available:

  2. Meg July 7, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    Wow. Thanks for the tip, Martin. What an amazing site already. I just viewed a book from 1707 entitled “A voyage to the islands Madera, Barbadoes, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica: with the natural history of the herbs and trees, four-footed beasts, fishes, birds, insects, reptiles, &c. of the last of those islands; to which is prefix’d, an introduction, wherein is an account of the inhabitants, air, waters, diseases, trade, &c. of that place, with some relations concerning the neighbouring continent, and islands of America. Illustrated with figures of the things described, which have not been heretofore engraved. In large copper-plates as big as the life /by Hans Sloane …” How cool is that?


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