OLAP, Darwin and Evolution

Edited 21st Sept 05 to include picture of herbarium sheet.


In my article 'Business Intelligence (BI): The way it is without the blah blah', I mention that I was aware of some exiting research using the SQL Server OLAP engine, the results of which where hopefully about to hit Nature magazine.  I couldn't say anymore at the time for fear of jeopardising the conclusions' debut in Nature (If Nature isn't first to publish, it's not in Nature).  I claimed this research would demonstrate OLAP, as a technology, can be used as a useful tool in fields well beyond those fenced in by the concept of Business Intelligence.  Well this research has indeed made it to the hallowed pages of this erudite organ; if you are prepared to pay the fee, you can find it here 'What Henslow taught Darwin' @ https://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v436/n7051/index.html#Feature.


The article doesn't single out SQL Server per se, but I can assure you, as someone who is in touch with one of the authors, Analysis Services OLAP engine made a significant contribution to the research mentioned.  Hopefully follow up material from the authors will document how OLAP was used.  Apparently there's so much interest in this story there's even talk of a film!


Let me give you an abstract to show how SQL Server Analysis Services OLAP has contributed to mankind's understanding of its own history and the study of biology therein.


Darwin was a student (1829-31) of Professor John S. Henslow of Cambridge.  Henslow is well known for arranging Charles Darwin's berth on the good ship HMS Beagle, the ship that took Darwin to the Galapagos islands.  The Galapagos islands are where Darwin discovered 'Darwin's Finches', birds that had 'evolved', by appearance and behaviour, to such an extent that Darwin had to question whether they were different varieties of the same species, or different species altogether.  In pursuit of the answer to this question, Darwin formed his seminal concepts that became the backbone to On the Origin of Species.


In the shadow of the afore mentioned article, we must now understand that it was Henslow who had first recognised variation in species, and that it was this recognition and the desire to seek its verification that put Darwin on the Beagle.  Furthermore, it was the fidelity of Darwin to fulfil this ambition, with its incumbent rigours in procedure, that ultimately lead him to break free of the creationist shackles that had hindered his mentor, and from which, sadly, his mentor would never be freed.


The research in this article covers 10,172 plants collected by Henslow.  By creating an OLAP cube to analyse the sheets of paper holding these plant samples, the researchers show that Henslow organised his documentation by none other than the variation he observed to be within the limits of species variation.  Nobody is known to have attempted this before.  It is of the stuff that makes a good film that we can now visit his herbarium at Cambridge and see, with newly enlightened eyes, how the plants within it have been carefully arranged to illuminate this most potent observation; a place where, hitherto, this brilliant enlightenment has been so shrouded in the dark silence of ignorance.


Below, courtesy of the authors, is an image of one of Henslow's herbarium sheets: Phleum arenarium. Eight numbered individuals are arranged in order of increasing height.  Plants 1-5 were collected 3rd June 1829 at Mildenhall, Suffolk by J.S. Henslow.  Plants 6-8 were collected in June 1822 at Liverpool by W. Wilson.