Sunday, March 19, 2006


When people find out that I am a scientist, they often think I know The Answers. Sometimes, they realize that my degree in physics does not afford me any expertise in other sciences... but sometimes they don't. And even within physics, there are many niches and specializations, and most physicists know very little about specializations distant from their own. The average astronomy professor may know more than you do about quantum dots, but don't bet on it. Even the microscopy experimentalist professor may be uninformed about them. Scientists don't know everything - we don't even know everything about our tiny corner of science.

But we do try.

An excellent example of how disorganized a field of study can be, and what scientists are trying to do to change that, can be found in taxonomy. From the February 9th edition of The Economist:
[N]early 250 years after Carl von Linné, a Swedish naturalist, invented the modern system of naming living creatures, taxonomists still have no official list of all the animals discovered so far.

Doesn't that seem like something that should have been done a long time ago? Frankly, I just assumed that such a catalogue existed somewhere - kept by some group of universities, or the Royal Society, or the Smithsonian. If I had grown up knowing that such a catalogue did not exist, I would probably be a taxonomist and software engineer today - I mean, it's obvious that a need for such would exist. We can't even keep track of a few dozen elements without creating a comprehensive table that catalogues them all into rows and columns by similar behaviors. How could biologists expect to have any sense of order regarding thousands of thousands of species, without some sort of comprehensive catalogue?

Although Linnaeus's big idea was that each species would have one scientific name, so that scientists could know immediately what they were discussing, the lack of a single official “telephone directory” has frustrated the entire enterprise. Around 1.5m species are thought to have been described so far, but more than 6m names have been used.

Because of this, a group called the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) at London's Natural History Museum has begun planning a definitive, open-access, web-based catalogue of species - the comprehensive, peer-reviewed Wikipedia of all living things scientists have discovered. The project is called ZooBank.

Zoobank would start with the partial catalogues that do currently exist. For example, both the Zoobank website and the Economist article I linked mention the Zoological Record...
...which is maintained in the British city of York by a firm called Thomson Zoological that makes its money by scouring the zoological literature, collating the results, and selling them.

That's a 150 year old project, and it catalogues over 17,000 species per year, but it misses an awful lot of potential listings. Still, it's a place for ZooBank to start.

They are still putting together a blueprint (and are open to suggestions), but they hope to get off the ground in the next year or two. I can't provide them with any financial support or taxonomical expertise, but I can give them a little tiny bit of publicity here, and I hope it helps.


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