Why forensic science is failing us — and why tonight's NOVA documentary doesn't quite cut it

In 2009, the National Academies of Science published a massive report on forensics. For many Americans, forensics is possibly the most familiar of all the sciences. It's the one we welcome into our living rooms every night, along with TV crime dramas and murder mysteries. But the report's conclusions might surprise you.

For one thing, it's hard to even generalize about the state of forensic science in the United States, because everything from standard practices to accreditation varies widely by sub-discipline, law-enforcement agency, and whether the law enforcement is happening at a local, state, or federal level. Worse, it's not at all clear that some of those sub-disciplines have a sound, scientific basis. For instance, DNA analysis tends to be pretty well-supported by evidence, while fingerprint analysis remains an art, more dependent on the person looking at the fingerprint than on hard laws of anatomy. Of course, the report also found that there simply hasn't been enough research done to determine how scientific most disciplines of forensic science are to begin with. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has allowed trial judges to certify forensic techniques as reliable even though we don't know whether they they are or not — and those decisions have been made in a haphazard, inconsistent way from one judge to the next.

Given how much our legal system relies on this stuff, we should all be feeling more than a little uncomfortable right about now. The state of forensic science, combined with its importance, virtually guarantees that there are innocent people behind bars (or worse) and criminals on the loose. Read the rest

Contest to build a human-powered helicopter

Since 1980, hundreds of young engineers have entered the Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition. Nobody has won the grand prize of $250,000 for demonstrating "a one minute hovering time, a momentary achievement of 3 meters altitude, and controlling the vehicle within a constrained box -- all in the same flight." But damn, they're sure trying. "Straight Up Difficult" (NPR) Read the rest
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Beyonce, owner of very red lipstick, will perform in the Super Bowl's halftime show

In a photographic announcement on her blog, Beyonce let the world in on some important pop culture news: duck-face is alive and well! And she is also going to be the main attraction at the Super Bowl XLVII halftime show on February 3. Actually, that's a pretty good act for the halftime show, what with her widespread appeal among fans of the National Football League. (via Huffington Post) Read the rest

Gary McKinnon on the decision not to extradite him to the USA

Following up on yesterday's announcement by the UK Home Secretary that Pentagon hacker Gary McKinnon will not be extradited to the USA (where he faces up to 60 years in prison), the Guardian's Lizzy Davies reports on McKinnon's reaction:

Speaking in the aftermath of the decision, about which his mother informed him late on Tuesday morning shortly before May's statement, Glasgow-born McKinnon said he felt hopeful for the first time in a decade. "I have spent the past 10 years living with a dark and hollow feeling," he told the Daily Mail. "I have always thought that if things went against me, I would just have to end it all and take my own life. Now I just feel that I have been set free."

Referring to his long-term girlfriend, Lucy Clarke, who campaigned against his extradition alongside Janis Sharp, McKinnon's mother, he added: "I had no hopes for a future, no way of making plans, no thoughts of asking Lucy to share my life, no thoughts of whether I could ever have children or get work. It still does not feel real – but only now am I starting to feel as if a shutter has flipped up and lifted in my head."

Gary McKinnon feels 'set free' after US extradition decision Read the rest

La Colombe Cold Brew: jet fuel in a beer bottle

My hosts at last night's signing at Philadelphia's Indy Hall co-working space did a lot to make me welcome, but most of all, they supplied me with rocket-fuel. The fuel took the form of a bottle of La Colombe Pure Black Cold Brew, a deceptively smooth, dark, chocolately cold-brew coffee that comes in a 12oz beer bottle. Deceptively smooth because this stuff is, as noted, pure rocket-fuel. They gave me a bottle for the road that I cracked in my hotel room this morning before heading to DC, and it practically had me plastered to the ceiling, despite its mellow flavor, and in a very good way.

I drink a lot of cold-brew on the road (I use the radical hotel-room coffee independence method to make cold-brew in breast-milk bags that I put in the minibar fridge overnight) but La Colombe was a cut above even the excellent stuff I make myself.

Pure Black Cold Brew Read the rest

More on the fake stem cell researcher who faked stem cell transplants

Hisashi Moriguchi probably isn't a specialist in stem cell research. He doesn't have an affiliation with Harvard University. And he most likely has not injected reprogrammed adult heart stem cells into human test subjects. That has not stopped him from claiming all three facts were true, though — and it didn't stop a major Japanese newspaper from believing him. But Science Insider reports that Moriguchi's lies go back further than this one incident. He's apparently been claiming the bogus Harvard affiliation since 2002, and once even erroneously claimed to be a member of a co-author's department at Massachusetts General Hospital — all without getting caught. Read the rest

Why do some people say the Earth isn't getting hotter?

If you haven't seen the Skeptical Science website yet, you're missing out.

Via Tom Standage

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How Anonymous broke its own rules to break free

Before the summer of 2011, Anonymous was an amorphous collective of hackers and pranksters ready to pour cold water on members' nascent political aspirations. By 2012, a growing antiauthority, anticensorship, anti-surveillance sentiment asserted itself, and everything changed.

A useful blog for people interested in alternative medicine

Until 2011, Dr. Edzard Ernst was the head of one of the few university departments doing real, unbiased research on the effectiveness and safety of alternative medicine techniques. That's important, because you can't just dismiss weird-sounding stuff out of hand, but you also want somebody other than the practitioners of that weird-sounding stuff conducting research and analyzing the data. Now retired, Ernst recently started blogging, and I wanted to point you to his new home on the Internet. He can be a bit snarky and caustic (especially with chiropractic and homeopathy). But in general he's a fair, reasonable, and knowledgeable source on what works and what doesn't. Definitely worth a bookmark. Read the rest

Did the average Neanderthal know she had a brother-in-law?

In an interview with The Houston Chronicle, paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin hits on an interesting point that I don't think we (the media and laypeople) consider enough when we talk about our closest ancient relatives. Although we have an increasingly deep picture of Neanderthal anatomy and genetics, that doesn't necessarily tell us a great deal about their biology.

Truth is, for how little we understand the wiring and functioning of our own brains, we understand even less about the Neanderthal mind. It's quite possible that they could mate with us, but couldn't think the same way we do. And it's those unseen, unstudied differences that could really account for the vast disparities that we see between how humans lived and how their Neanderthal neighbors lived.

The picture we have so far is that the Neanderthals are sort of opportunistic, good at hunting middle- to large-sized mammals. They have a territory in which they probably go through a cycle of habitation in different places, basically when one place is exhausted they move to another one. What we don't see with Neanderthals is long-distance exchanges with other groups. What we see with modern humans in the same areas is different. For example, we find shells in Germany coming from the Mediterranean or from the French Atlantic Coast. It means there was a network of people. So, the question is, what kind of relationship did a Neanderthal have with his brother-in-law? Humans did not just live with their families and their neighbors, but they knew they had a brother-in-law in another village, and that beyond the mountain there is the family of their mother, or uncle, or something like that.

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Why you should care about the planet found orbiting Alpha Centauri, even though it's not a good place to live

Last night, astronomers with the European Southern Observatory announced that they'd found a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B — an orange star a little smaller and a little less bright than our own Sun. That's important, because, while more than 700 planets have been found outside our solar system, this one — Alpha Centauri Bb (yeah, I know) — is by far the closest. To give you an idea of what we're talking about in distance here, imagine that we are Kansas City and Mars is Toledo. Alpha Centauri Bb is like Tokyo — but you have to get there the long way around and nobody has invented the boat or the plane yet. Basically, it's closer than any other planet we know of outside our solar system, but not really close close. Just 4.37 light years is still more than 25 trillion miles, which is still a long ways away.

Likewise, Alpha Centauri Bb is classified as an "Earth-like" planet, but that shouldn't give you any ideas of colonizing it Zefram Cochrane-style. Bb is way too close to its star for that — closer, even, than Mercury is to our own Sun.

But you should still be excited about this. Terrible, filing-cabinet name aside, Alpha Centauri Bb is jeffing epic. Until now, we didn't think our closest neighboring solar system had any planets at all. And because of the way planets work, writes Lee Billings at the Centauri Dreams blog, this single find means we're much, much more likely to discover other Centaurian worlds. Read the rest