Beautiful Experiments in the Life Sciences

  • Frederic L. Holmes
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 182)


What do scientists mean when they call an experiment beautiful? An influential collection of essays entitled The Uses of Experiment finds no place to discuss experimental beauty.1 Perhaps that is an appropriate omission. If we follow the dictionary definition of beauty, as “that quality . . . which affords keen pleasure to the senses . . . or which charms the intellectual faculties”,2 we may conclude that beauty does not belong within the category of utility. Does the beauty that scientists see in experiments, therefore, bear no relation to their pragmatic objectives? On the other hand, if, as one scientist has expressed it to me, “all important experiments are beautiful,”3 is beauty a functional attribute of the experiments that display it? Are there any more particular “indicators of beauty” shared by those experiments that scientists declare to be beautiful? Such questions are not frequently discussed by historians of science, and are, as the title of this volume implies, elusive. One way to begin to examine them is to focus our attention on specific historical examples of experiments that drew from contemporaries to whom it was pertinent the accolade “beautiful”. I am presently engaged in writing a historical reconstruction of the origins of one such experiment.


Double Helix Aesthetic Quality Photographic Film Dictionary Definition Replication Problem 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Gooding, D., Pinch, T. and Schaffer, S. (eds.), The Uses of Experiment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd, ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973) 1:171.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Matthew Meselson, conversation with author, Cambridge, Mass., 2 December 1987.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Judson, H. F., The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), p. 188.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Latour, B. and Woolgar, S., Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, 2d ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), pp. 45–53.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Franklin W. Stahl, conversation with author, 10 July 1992, Woods Hole, Mass.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Watson, J. D. and Crick, F. H. C, ‘Genetical implications of the structure of Deoxyribonucleic Acid’, Nature 171: 965–966, 1953.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Max Delbrück to J. D. Watson, 14 April, 1953, 12 May, 1953, Max Delbrück Collection, California Institute of Technology Archives.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Delbrück, M., ‘On the replication of Desoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA)’, Froc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 40: 783–788, on 785, 1954.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Ibid., pp. 787–788.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Stent, G. S. and Jerne, N. K., ‘The distribution of parental phosphorus atoms among bacteriophage progeny’, Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 41: 707–709, 1955.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Levinthal, C, ‘The mechanism of DNA replication and genetic recombination in phage’, Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 42: 394–404, 1956.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Delbrück, M. and Stent, G., ‘On the mechanism of DNA replication’, in William D. McElroy and Bentley Glass (eds.), A Symposium on the Chemical Basis of Heredity (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1957), p. 699.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    The narrative given in this and the following paragraphs has been reconstructed from the Ultracentrifuge Notebook, the surviving films of the experiments recorded in that notebook, and Meselson, M. and Stahl, F. W., ‘The replication of DNA in Escherichia Coli’, Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 44: 671–682, 1958.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Meselson, conversation with author, 2 December, 1987.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Meselson described these routines, in concrete detail, in a conversation with the author, 20 May, 1992.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Cyrus Levinthal to M. Meselson, November 18, 1957, Meselson personal papers.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    M. Meselson to J. D. Watson, 8 November, 1957, ibid. Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Sydney Brenner to M. Meselson, 18 February, 1958, ibid. Google Scholar
  20. 21.
    M. Meselson, conversation with author, 2 December, 1987.Google Scholar
  21. 22.
    M. Meselson to J. D. Watson, May 18, 1958, Watson Archive, Cold Spring Harbor.Google Scholar
  22. 23.
    Meselson and Stahl, ‘Replication of DNA’, pp. 676–677.Google Scholar
  23. 24.
    Maurice H. F. Wilkins to M. Meselon, 3 June, 1958, Meselson personal papers.Google Scholar
  24. 25.
    Watson, J. D., Molecular Biology of the Gene, 2d. ed. (New York: W. A. Benjamin, Inc., 1970), p. 298.Google Scholar
  25. 26.
    Kit, S., ‘Deoxyribonucleic Acids’, Ann. Rev. Biochem. 32: 64, 1963.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 28.
    F. W. Stahl, conversation with author, 21 November, 1988.Google Scholar
  27. 29.
    M. Meselson, conversation with author, 2 December, 1987.Google Scholar
  28. 30.
  29. 31.
    F. W. Stahl, conversation with author, 21, November, 1988.Google Scholar
  30. 32.
    Günther Stent, conversation with author, 5 May, 1992.Google Scholar
  31. 33.
    McAllister, J. W., ‘Truth and beauty in scientific reason’, Synthese 78: 25–51, 1989.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Frederic L. Holmes

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations