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Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014

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Professor edits landmark encyclopedia

A 4,700-page, five-volume set of scientific articles may not sound like the most spellbinding reading. But the new Encyclopedia of Biodiversity edited by Princeton ecologist Simon Levin is proving to be just that for anyone with even a passing interest in stemming the loss of plant and animal species around the world.

The encyclopedia, published by Academic Press, contains more than 300 articles about biodiversity in all its facets, from how it arose through evolution to how it relates to our modern economy.

"The loss of biodiversity is one of the greatest ecological threats we face," said Levin, the George M. Moffett Professor of Biology and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. "Yet there was nothing that even addressed the biological, taxonomic aspects of biodiversity, much less something that attempted to bring together the biological and the social policy aspects."

People who have seen the encyclopedia say that it has ensnared them, leading them from one article to another, down unexpected paths. "I think it's really great for browsing and brainstorming," said Richard Root, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University.

Part of that success may be Levin's avoidance of overly technical writing. "I told the contributors to write on the level of a Scientific American article," said Levin. Each article includes a glossary of terms, with more than 3,000 glossary entries throughout the volumes.

That approach opens the encyclopedia to non-scientists, but also gives scientists who specialize in one aspect of ecology an introduction to other disciplines that are becoming increasingly interwoven. The study of biodiversity, a term coined only 15 years ago, pulls together a broad range of disciplines, from the seemingly old-fashioned science of identifying and classifying species to the computer modeling of ecosystems.

"There is no doubt that this work will immediately become the standard reference and the most important single resource for this dynamic field," said Richard Primack, professor of biology at Boston University.

The encyclopedia will be particularly useful to the increasing number of people who work in social policy and "who are taking a peek in this area," said Root. "It helps people tailor their reading to their needs, right there on one shelf."

Levin began the project more than four years ago, working particularly in the last year to corral 300 authors to contribute their articles. His unusually high success rate helped push the encyclopedia to five volumes from its originally planned four. "I would not have been able to do it without e-mail," said Levin.

Others contributing scientific articles from Princeton include Andrew Dobson, Ran Nathan, Kenneth Petren, Daniel Rubenstein, Laura Landweber and Hope Hollocher. And, in an example of the encyclopedia's eclectic breadth, English Professor William Howarth contributed an article titled "Literary Perspectives on Biodiversity."

Contact: Justin Harmon (609) 258-3601

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