Rough transcript of an interview. For the big picture, see the Interviews page.

Intervew with a biological sciences journalist.

Q: If you heard about a tree of life project/website, what might you do with it? What questions might you be interested in answering at it?

A: Well, lots of them:

  • 1) curiousity: what is this thing in YOUR conception? what does it look like to the researchers?
  • 2) what are the big divisions? bacteria, slime molds, etc...all this strange stuff, & tucked over into the corner is all the stuff I know about, plants & animals & so on, it's kinda humbling...
  • 3) your methodology - how did you do things, to get this info?
  • 4) cruise around to see if there's anything that you have changed - any strange things done to mollusks, sponges? at roughly the phylla level. Just to see what's new, etc.
  • 5) Go down the tree branches as far as the info goes for a group I'm familiar with - primates, birds - to see what you'd done.
  • 6) Check out a dustbin group - the ones that hold all the things that someone can't figure out - like in the fungi imperfecti - see what's happened.
  • 7) Check out groups like fish & flowering plants, which I tend to know at the family level, and see what you've done with the higher-order classifications. Or even, to see the higher order classifications for the first time. How do the "Magnolials" relate to the "Rosials"? I expect that relationship to be there, visually, for me to see -to grok the nesting, or whichever relationship is present.

Q: At the end of a branch, what would you expect?

A: It would be exceptional if it was genus.... wow... it just doesn't seem realistic that people would agree on how many genera there were, or how they are related. And anyways, who cares except the specialists, when you're talking about earthworms or slimemolds or so on?

Also interesting: how it could guide conservation. I imagine you'd be able to see quite easily the deep splits, how far back things go, like the Kagu - you'd be able to see at a glance which branches preserve large, very different chunks of genetic diversity.

Q: Do you need to know anything about the support for the node, the characters that support the branching?

A: It sounds like so much work...yes it would be nice, to know what criteria are being used, what people think are important.... I'm interested in different levels of detail in different groups, and I imagine other people are, too, so I can't say which particular branchings would be most useful to know more about....

A: If I've got some sort of moth, I could go plug in the genus name & see what it is related to - zoom out & immediately have it visually contextualized - very nice!!

Q: Describe the screen you're thinking of?

A: Not like a christmas tree with a gazillion images - too untidy - a name you roll over, and click on it to bring up a picture - maybe you can choose to keep that image up after you move the mouse. You have options to explore things that you find on the here are some good moth sites, or maybe that's silly b/c we now have Google.... but to know how this moth differs from other moths would be good - roll over the names for little fountains of information.

I'd want to be able to zoom in, zoom out, zoom out - so I can actually visually see the nesting of things.

Q: How would you locate the primate & bird branches you were interested in?

A: I probably could - but that doesn't seem fair for all people.... you'd have to show some labels on some major branches - I guess if you don't recognize the names, you'd just have to click & explore - I mean, what else can you do? or you can search on a name, if you know where you're going.

Q: Would you expect it to work with "Insect" and "primate" as well as "primata" and "insecta"?

A: Yes, otherwise it would be expecting too much knowledge. And it would have to work like Google, where it recommends things with similar spellings to what you've typed in.

Q: Can you think of ways that you would use this in your normal work?

A: well yeah, like when you want to give some classification for a BBC wildlife article, or say "the closest relative of x is y" This would be extremely useful. I presume you'd regularly update the tree, based on some criteria agreed upon by the scientists involved - yeah, I expect it to be authoritative.

Q: Would you cite it?

A: if it became respected, I think it would be absolutely fabulous - It would be so useful - there is no central database where you can go & get counts of species for things, now, and this could be the most accessible, most centralized place to start for that type of things....even become that type of thing.

Q: How would you expect the rank of these various names to be indicated?

A: You'd have to indicate big branches so people know where they are; maybe others (minor branches) wait for a roll-over. The names would include the rank: Family Psittidae, or Genus Ara.

Q: What if it didn't have ranks? Is there something else you'd like to know about the branches, if there was no rank?

A: well, that's what I want to know - I want to know the nesting - if you're not going to have endings to the names that allows me to know the hierarchies, then I'd like to know comparabilities - I'd want to know which parts of the Magnolia branch, for example, is as divergent or diverse as which part of the Crustacea, for example. So I can say - wow, look how genetically diverse the lillies are, compared to the diversity of the lizards of the same rank.... If you're not going to use the ranks in some sort of consistent way, then the genetic distance becomes the feet & inches of this new landscape - how far things are away from each other is visible, and you can suddenly learn a very large amount...

Ranks have been the traditional way of helping to provide some sense of diversity & distance between things - it provides the latitude & longitude for navigation around the taxonomy - I'd like to see those ranks in there - but if you're intent on getting rid of them, then at least provide me some other way of conceiving of the differences, like genetic distance - ideally there'd be both.