Confident in the inherent beauty of the way biologists practice their craft, the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) is asking its members, and anyone else with an interest, to identify biology's most beautiful experiments. Inspired by a similar campaign held by
Those offering submissions must make their case in no more than 500 words. A panel of four judges, composed of scientists as well as historians and philosophers of science, will judge the entries, and the AIBS journal
There are no hard and fast criteria for what kinds of experiments can be considered "beautiful," said Beardsley. Holmes attributed the beauty of Matthew Meselson and Franklin Stahl's 1957 experiment, which demonstrated the semiconservative replication of DNA by measuring the densities of labeled strands, to its "essential simplicity." (The Meselson and Stahl experiment is the only one not eligible for submission.)
Although he hasn't yet decided on specific benchmarks, one of the judges, Scott F. Gilbert, a professor of biology at Swarthmore College, told
When teaching his students, Gilbert often cites a few particularly elegant experiments. They include, for example, a 1933 experiment by Hans Spemann and Oscar Schotte in which the German biologists illustrated the importance of genes for specifying organ formation. Spemann and Schotte transplanted tissue from a salamander embryo's jaw-forming region into frog embryos and vice versa. The resulting frog larvae had salamander jaws, and the resulting salamander larvae had frog jaws. The embryos had signaled "make a jaw," but the genes in that tissue only knew how to make the type of jaw that the genes would allow. The experiment beautifully and succinctly brought together the notions of epigenesis and preformation, said Gilbert, and showed that both were critical in making an embryo.
Gilbert, who emphasizes that he has no favorites going into the AIBS competition, suggests that experiments can be reduced to three areas: conception, execution, and interpretation. "What I hope to see in the beautiful experiment," he said, "is where each of those parts is really interesting and where you look at them and say, 'Why didn't I do that?'"