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A new theory for the death of King Tut

What killed the young Pharaoh Tutankhamen? Theories have ranged from assassination plots to epilepsy, but a new analysis of injuries visible on his mummy suggests that a chariot race accident might have been to blame. Maggie 13

The story of America's oldest solved cold case

In 1957, Maria Ridulph disappeared from a street corner in her Illinois hometown. She was later found dead — stabbed, stripped, and left under a log miles away. In 2012, a man went to prison for her murder. CNN has a long and well-put-together story about how this killing was solved after so many decades, and the questions people are asking about facts and scenarios that still don't quite add up. Maggie 1

DNA evidence reopens 50-year-old missing baby case

In 1964, a baby was stolen from a Chicago hospital. The FBI later determined that a baby, found in New Jersey, was the missing boy and gave him back to his parents. Now, DNA evidence shows that the man raised as Paul Fronczak isn't actually the same person as the kidnapped baby called Paul Fronczak. It's a heartbreaking story for Fronczak and his family, with some important lessons about the history and future of forensics. Maggie 6

The messy science that spotted J.K. Rowling's secret novel

Behind the unveiling of J.K. Rowling as the author of a pseudonymously published detective novel lies a messy and not-terribly-precise science called "forensic stylistics". Using specially designed software — or, less often, just a trained eye — experts in the field try to match writing styles and discern the true authorship of disputed texts. But, even when they turn out to be right, as in the Rowling case, their findings are less than exact. Linguist Ben Zimmer explores the field and its usefulness at The Wall Street Journal. Maggie 5

The secrets of bomb forensics

At the New Yorker, Paige Williams visits forensic chemist Adam B. Hall to talk about the surprising things you can learn about bombs and their makers by looking at the effects they produce — from the type and color of the smoke, to the smell that lingers in the air, to what the "boom" sounds like. I'd take Hall's speculation about the Boston Marathon bombings with a grain of salt (he's making his judgements from low-grade video and isn't part of the investigation), but the process he describes is absolutely fascinating. Maggie

Pssst, hey kid. Wanna see some sea lice eat a dead pig?

Come on. It's for science.

In fact, it's meant to help people.

Researchers at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, put a dead pig in a shark-proof (and octopus-proof, as you'll see) cage and stuck it in the ocean in order to learn more about how human remains decompose underwater. That knowledge will help forensic scientists interpret crime scenes.

Most of the work is done by maggots known as sea lice, but towards the end, after the maggots have eaten the good bits, you can watch some fat, red shrimp move in to pick apart the cartilage.

Read the full story about this research at New Scientist

Via Deep Sea News

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.

Tonight, on PBS, NOVA will premier a documentary on the flaws of forensics and how they might be solved. I liked the show and I think it's definitely worth watching. That said, I think NOVA took an angle on this information that made the show less useful (and less important) than it might have been.

Read the rest

Memory card leads to long-lost camera's owner

Found by Vermont teacher Jon Noerr in a creek near Pharaoh Lake, a muddy Canon XT Rebel had clearly taken its last shot. But the memory card was ship-shape, and its contents made it possible to track owner Michael Comeau down and give him back his long-lost photos.

The memory card’s contents contained a hodgepodge of urban streetscapes, photos of apparent loved ones and random signs. He noticed most of the photos appeared to be in one general area, which he believed to be in one of New York City’s outer boroughs. ... But just two photos served as Noerr’s “holy grail,” a shot of a young woman sitting on a front stoop of a house numbered 327 and a shot taken seconds later of the sky that captured a street sign reading 3rd Street.

"I think I found your camera": Visual clues help man solve mystery [PostStar.com. Photo: John Noerr]

Forensic psychologist says mass killing is about culture, not mental illness

The story is familiar to us today: Somebody, usually a young man, walks into a public place, kills a bunch of people seemingly at random, and (usually) ends the murder spree with a suicide-by-cop.

But this story—at least, in Western culture—is startlingly new, relatively speaking. In fact, Paul Mullen, a forensic psychologist, says we can pin a date and place on the first time it happened. On September 4, 1913, in the German towns of Degerloch and Mühlhausen an der Enz, Ernst August Wagner killed his wife, his children, and at least nine strangers. He shot more than 20 people and set several fires during his killing spree. He ended up spending the rest of his life in an insane asylum.

But when we try to pin killings like these on mental illness, Mullen says, we're not quite hitting the right point. The people who go on killing sprees are mad, sure. But that's not the same thing as diagnosable, objective, physical mental illness. Only about 10% of the people ever arrested for crimes like this had actual mental illnesses. In fact, Mullen thinks these killings have more to do with culture than brain chemistry. His argument is interesting. And it might sound a little similar to the old "angry music made him do it!" trope. But what Mullen is talking about is different than that. Science journalist David Dobbs tries to explain the distinction:

I’m not saying the movies made Holmes crazy or psychopathic or some such. But the movies are a enormous, constant, heavily influential part of an American culture that fetishizes violence and glamorizes, to the point of ten-year wars, a militarized, let-it-rain approach to conflict resolution. And culture shapes the expression of mental dysfunction — just as it does other traits. This is why, say, relatively ‘simple’ schizophrenia — not the paranoid sort — takes very different forms in Western and some Eastern cultures. On an even simpler level, this is why competitive athleticism is more likely to express itself as football (the real kind) in Britain but as basketball in the U.S. Culture shapes the expression of behavioral traits.

This is an interesting argument and an interesting thing to think about.

Read the rest of David Dobbs' post about the difference between blaming movies for violence and talking about the consequences of violence in culture.

Watch the video of Paul Mullen discussing cultural violence, mental illness, and spree killings

Read a very good post at the Neuroanthropology blog that expands on Paul Mullen's ideas and provides more interesting links

It's shopped, this new app will be able to tell by the pixels

At Poynter, Craig Silverman writes about FourAndSix, a new photo forensics tool now in beta. The idea is to create tools that "sniff out digitally altered images." Two of the people behind it: Kevin Connor, former VP of product management for Adobe Photoshop, and digital image forensics expert Dr. Hany Farid. (via Erin Siegal)

Poison, forensics, and how science protects us

Last month, I read Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook , a really fascinating book about poison and murder in the early decades of the 20th century. Primarily, Blum looks at the development of forensic science and how the New York City coroner's office transitioned from being a place to stash political flunkies to being a scientific and effective player in crime solving. But there's another theme to the book as well—without science, there are many crimes that go not just unpunished, but completely unnoticed.

And this isn't just about women offing their husbands or villains chloroforming unsuspecting strangers. As the coroner's office developed standards of research and became an entity that served justice, the people who worked there became increasingly aware of the ways that the powerful profited off poisoning average workers and consumers. From government agents intentionally lacing alcohol with deadly adulterants during Prohibition, to factory owners knowingly exposing their workers to dangerous chemicals, Blum's book is full of examples of public corruption that was only brought to light because coroners took the time to apply the scientific method to investigating and cataloging deaths.

Some of these stories are ones I'd heard before, but had no idea the role that coroners and forensics had played in exposing the crime and providing evidence that ensured the people harmed received justice. For instance, Blum has a couple of posts on her blog right now about tetraethyl lead—the lead in "leaded" gasoline. This additive fixed an obnoxious mechanical problem in car engines, but at the price of sending factory workers to their deaths in straight jackets.

In October of 1924, workers in the TEL building began collapsing, going into convulsions, babbling deliriously. By the end of September, 32 of the 49 TEL workers were in the hospital; five of them died.

In response to the worker health crisis at the Bayway plant, Standard Oil suggested that the problem might simply be overwork. Unimpressed, the state of New Jersey ordered a halt to TEL production. And then the compound was so poorly understood, state health officials asked the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office to find out what had happened.

In 1924, New York had the best forensic toxicology department in the country; in fact, it had one of the few such programs period ... It took Gettler three obsessively focused weeks to figure out how much tetraethyl lead the Standard Oil workers had absorbed before they became ill, or crazy, or dead. “This is one of the most difficult of many difficult investigations of the kind which have been carried on at this laboratory,” Norris said, when releasing the results. “This was the first work of its kind, as far as I know. Dr. Gettler had not only to do the work but to invent a considerable part of the method of doing it.

Working with the first four bodies, then checking his results against the body of the last worker killed, who had died screaming in a straitjacket, Gettler discovered that TEL and its lead byproducts formed a recognizable distribution, concentrated in the lungs, the brain, and the bones. The highest levels were in the lungs suggesting that most of the poison had been inhaled; later tests showed that the types of masks used by Standard Oil did not filter out the lead in TEL vapors.

Ultimately, the reactions to this research didn't go far enough, fast enough—the workers got better safety equipment, but Americans were still being exposed to tetraethyl lead in gasoline though the 1980s. But, without science, there would have been even less protection than there already was. The work of the New York City medical examiners forced government and business to pay attention to something they preferred to ignore.

Image: Old Gas Pump, a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from lhkmuse18's photostream