Letter From Discover

Saturday, May 29, 2004

We are frequently asked how we come up with the ideas for our articles. One source of inspiration is scientific conferences. Discover editors attend a broad range of professional scientific gatherings around the world each year. This month’s cover story originated with a remarkable presentation made at a medical conference held in Philadelphia last year. Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a 30-minute talk in which he made a number of provocative suggestions. One stood out in particular: Caplan said that ideology had been introduced into the abortion debate because scientists had failed to take a stand on facts. “Science has things to say about when life begins,” he said.

Several Discover editors were present, and Caplan’s comments did not go unnoticed. It seemed difficult to believe that science, which is a remarkably open process, had failed to pass this knowledge on to the rest of the world. When we began to investigate what the latest research suggests about when life begins, we found surprises. Developmental biologists have long puzzled over why an astounding number of pregnancies result in natural abortions. Attempts to find out why this occurs have been hampered by political constraints on human embryo research in the United States. But meanwhile, new findings by a handful of pioneering researchers indicate that the fate of an embryo may be determined by biological events that affect the development of an egg months before fertilization.

Focusing the lasers of science on controversial subjects can cut through mythology, cultural biases, and obfuscation, and this month’s cover story is no exception. We think you’ll find the reporting and the writing exceptional. We are proud to introduce Discover readers to acclaimed science writer Stephen S. Hall, whose most recent book is Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension. And we suspect you’ll be glad we were at that conference.

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