Scientist Biographies

The Challenge of Digital Humanities
for Scientist Biographies

Differences between biographies in print and biographies on the web

Delft, March 9, 2018

When Ilja asked me to speak today, he noted the "vast literature on Leeuwenhoek". Indeed: Huygens/Leeuwenhoek/Swammerdam vs H/L/S and Newton. However, this literature is heavily weighed towards Leeuwenhoek's letters and his science. Dobell or Schierbeek, the two major biographers, concentrate on his science as revealed through his letters. No one has ever gone into the Delft archives as extensively as I have, though the ongoing digitization of the documents in the Gemeentearchief Delft is making that much easier. I have found hundreds of documents relating to Leeuwenhoek's life and hundreds more relating to his family, friends, and neighbors.

What to do with all of that? if I were writing a book for print, I could quote some of it, summarize and condense much of it, and not have room for the rest in the service of a printed book. Or I could put it all online and organize it so that people can find their own way in it.


Number of words in books are limited by paper and ink. Lens on Leeuwenhoek has no limit.

It is not only a biography, however fragmented. It’s also a focused archive giving other Leeuwenhoek researchers direct access to the primary sources.


Books are limited. Lens on Leeuwenhoek has over 400,000 words and over 2,000 images.


Books are in a few libraries, personal and institutional. Lens on Leeuwenhoek is easily, quickly, and cheaply on any computer worldwide.

Last month, Lens on Leeuwenhoek had about two thousand visitors from about a hundred countries. Last year: March 2017 - March 2018


Books are linear. Lens on Leeuwenhoek is non-linear.

Word by word, of course, and paragraph by paragraph, both books and webs are linear. The writer is in charge. But for groups of paragraphs, however, webs are non-linear. The reader is in charge. The book has pages organized by chapters. Lens on Leeuwenhoek has a database organized by a taxonomy.


The book is a product. Lens on Leeuwenhoek is a process.

Books on paper are frozen; mistakes can't be corrected. As a result libraries have books about Leeuwenhoek that have inaccurate information.


The book gets some peer review and hopefully more feedback after it is developed. Lens on Leeuwenhoek gets peer review and feedback while it is being developed. It has the potential for enabling crowdsourcing of scientific, historical, and linguistic annotations for the letters.

Skill set

The book requires researching, writing, and document design. Lens on Leeuwenhoek also requires researching, writing, and document design. It also requires visual design, information design, and database-driven content management.

Few individuals have that complete skill set. Will digital humanities in the universities change that? Will visual design, information design, and database-driven content management be considered general communications skills rather than specialized computer skills? If that happens, the effect on scientist biographies will be profound.