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Life is large

A colleague sent me a CD a couple years ago with a title song called, “Life is Large,” suggesting that that might be a good tagline for Berkshire Publishing. I still toy with the idea: it does capture something of what we’re trying to do. But life has cropped up in another way of late in the encyclopedia world.

In May there was a great deal of press about the launch of the Encyclopedia of Life and a number of people sent me notes about it, knowing I’d be interested but not realizing that creating exactly that, an Encyclopedia of Life, was something I’ve wanted to do since 2001. I remember the moment when I said the words aloud, knowing how absurd it would sound, but also knowing that my kids are used to my grandiloquent ideas. We were sitting at a picnic table by Lake Mansfield on a startlingly warm winter’s day and I suppose the conversation had swung to work, as it so often does with us. Or perhaps we were talking about Lewis Mumford or Rachel Carson, two important and exceedingly different writers about whom I had observed a fascinating parallel: late in their careers, both wrote in diaries and letters about wanting to study and explore the concept and actuality of life.

That was my literary inspiration for a Berkshire Encyclopedia of Life, and although I never felt in a position to tackle such a large project—or confident that I could persuade one of our conservative publishing partners to fund it—the idea remained, and I find in my files a report an editorial assistant, George Woodward, wrote in January 2002. I’ll paste some text below so you can see what we were thinking of. But this post is inspired by having looked at the website for the Encyclopedia of Life, as I plan our reference list for the next two years. I was stunned to find out that all the press had been merely an announcement of the start of the project: I assumed that it must actually exist, especially given all the money involved.

One reason friends forward me information about projects like this is that they worry about how Berkshire can compete with such huge operations with their massive budgets. Projects like this worry the free encyclopedia folks, too, as you’ll see at this wiki blog:

What Does This Mean for Wikipedia and Citizendium?

There is some sense among Wikipedians that the Encyclopedia of Life is overlapping with territory already covered by Wiki Species, Wikimedia Commons, and well, Wikipedia. Larry Sanger has already written a defensive blog post, explaining why Citizendium will prevail, and why he feels the EOL will probably fail.

Knowing how quickly and efficiently it’s possible to produce an excellent encyclopedia, I’m almost tempted to see what I can do with Life, after all. Here are a few notes about our plans:

January 7, 2002


As you have observed, the study of “life” has been of increasing importance over the past few decades as new research has provided new explanations and new definitions for existing beliefs. Most of the subjects that the Encyclopedia of Life would probably deal with are quite contentious and would require explication of several opposing viewpoints rather than simple factual definitions. However, the gathering of all these different theories would probably make the Encyclopedia a handy reference volume for most people involved in the life sciences, students, teachers, and researchers, as well as general users who are simply trying to sort through the mess. One of the over-riding problems that I see the Encyclopedia addressing, probably directly and indirectly, is the actual definition of life. Any biology textbook will provide you with a simple one, but as the issues of biogenesis (the beginnings of life), the relationship between humans and machines, and even abortion (at what point does life begin?) are increasingly debated, the definition becomes more and more complex.

To begin with, I thought I would list some of the disciplines that would fit into the Encyclopedia in some way:

Biology. The obvious one, but there are several important subcategories that we should be aware of. For the historical record, there is Paleobiology, which is under the jurisdiction of Paleontology. This discipline provides most of the evidence that supports theories behind biogenesis and Evolutionary Biology, and is often used in combination with Comparative Anatomy to create evolutionary charts. For the human side of things, there is Anthropology, although as I’m sure David will point out, this field isn’t restricted to the actual development of human beings, which is probably the branch that would be most applicable to this project (Paleoanthropology).
Thinking smaller, Organic Chemistry is the study of carbon-based molecules (which occur in all known life and provide part of our simple definition of life (there’s a certain circular reasoning there)). Genetics is the obvious discipline-du-jour and complements Comparative Anatomy on a cellular level. It will also figure in to our considerations of the future of life, as well as discussions of the relationship between humans and technology (many websites are touting genetics as a way to “control evolution”).

Two other branches of biology that should be addressed are Astrobiology and Exobiology. The former is the study of the effects of space on Earth life, particularly humans and the guiding scientific principle behind the manned space programs (NASA has a great site at that explains the field and its applications very nicely). Exobiology is the study of extraterrestrial life. Obviously this area attracts a lot of unreliable “research” and a great deal of fanaticism, but it is also increasingly becoming a validated field of study, particularly with discussions of extraterrestrial sources of life on Earth (see below). (A side note here: this encyclopedia is rife with topics that are often dealt with in popular, as well as scientific culture. Movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (humans and machines) and books such as H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (a veritable treatise on exobiology), along with the infamous radio version have arguably had as much impact on people’s conceptions and opinions of many of these topics as scientific research has (they certainly fuel the imagination a lot easier) and would certainly make for interesting sidebars or appendices if nothing else (they might also make for increased interest in readers and can be done without sacrificing “integrity” of the Encyclopedia).

Given our current development of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of the 21st Century, which has people like Vincent Cerf, Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, writing about the “Interplanetary Internet,” this project doesn’t seem so far-fetched now!

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