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Biology's Most Beautiful

Submit nominations to by the end of 2003.

BioScience presents readers with an unusual (and, we hope, stimulating) challenge: to nominate candidates for a short list of the most beautiful biology experiments. Essays on those that we judge most plausible will be published in future issues of BioScience.

The notion of selecting experiments by such a subjective criterion as beauty may seem surprising, but it is not original. John Cairns, a former director of the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory, told Horace Freeland Judson that the Meselson-Stahl experiment, which established the semiconservative nature of DNA replication, was "the most beautiful experiment in biology." Judson's account of Cairns's assessment in The Eighth Day of Creation, published in 1979, stimulated the late science historian Frederic Lawrence Holmes to borrow the characterization for the subtitle of his 2001 book, Meselson, Stahl, and the Replication of DNA: A History of "The Most Beautiful Experiment in Biology." And a year ago, Robert P. Crease (2002) asked readers of Physics World for nominations for the most beautiful experiment in physics.

BioScience does not presume to second-guess Cairns's assessment of the Meselson-Stahl experiment as "most beautiful," a judgment that Holmes attributed to the experiment's essential simplicity. But we believe readers will have their own opinions about other candidates for the distinction. We trust this criterion will allow latitude for some less-well-known experiments to be honored and described, as well as for some famous ones to be considered anew. We plan to solicit and publish essays of appreciation from qualified experts on those nominated experiments that seem to be deserving candidates. We will not announce vote counts or rank the nominated experiments in any way; there will be no "winner." We encourage readers to suggest beauteous experiments from all fields of biology, as we intend to cast a wide net. Experiments from any period in history may be nominated. The Meselson-Stahl experiment, because it has already been authoritatively honored and described, is the only biology experiment that will not be considered in the BioScience lineup.

We will be guided in our consideration of which nominees are worthy contenders by four distinguished experts: Richard M. Burian, Professor of Philosophy and Science and Technology Studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (and a member of the BioScience editorial board); Jane Maienschein, Regents' Professor of Biology and Society at Arizona State University; Scott F. Gilbert, Professor of Biology at Swarthmore College; and John Beatty, Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia.

Readers should submit their nominations to bioscience@aibs.org by the end of 2003. Nominations must include proper citations to the experiment and a brief account (up to 500 words) of why it should be considered one of the most beautiful experiments in biology.

References cited.

  • Crease RP. 2002. The most beautiful experiment... Physics World (May). (15 April 2003; http://physicsweb.org/article/world/15/5/2)
  • Holmes FL. 2001. Meselson, Stahl, and the Replication of DNA: A History of "The Most Beautiful Experiment in Biology." Plainview (NY): CSHL Press.
  • Judson HF. 1979. The Eighth Day of Creation: The Makers of the Revolution in Biology. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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