Stories tagged crime

Yup, still not Friday, but posting a few Science Friday videos that I've missed lately.

Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday

From 3/25,

"Artist Angela Strassheim began her career as a forensic photographer in a crime lab. She soon left to focus on art full-time, but she didn’t entirely leave the field behind. Her body of work, Evidence, is a documentary art project created using forensic techniques she learned on the job. The striking, sometimes disturbing images ask the question: after a tragic event, what remains?"

Chop it off and send it in!
Chop it off and send it in!Courtesy miss pupik
A couple weeks ago I posted a link to a project in which Dr. Patrick Wheatley was soliciting donations of hair for geochemical research. Intrigued, I contacted Patrick to ask him more about the hair project.

Me: What do you look for as you test the hair?

Patrick: I'm looking for changes in the ratios of isotopes in various elements. I hope to tie the changes in isotopic ratios to differences in geography, either through differences in the isotope ratios of local water supplies or fundamental deferences in the geology of the region where the hair was grown.

Me: How do those isotopes get in our hair in the first place?

Patrick: They are incorporated through our drinking water or diet.

Me: What will your findings help scientists do or understand? Is there a practical application for this research?

Patrick: This research is driven by a possible forensic application, knowing the past whereabouts of victims of crimes (perhaps dead and unable to talk about where they were or perhaps held in a secret location) or suspects of crimes (maybe unwilling to talk about where they have spent time recently). There are also possible medical applications.

You can still send hair in for the project. More information can be found at the project's website.


Scientists?: Progress?
Scientists?: Progress?Courtesy Renato Souza
Well, okay, that headline needs some clarification and elaboration.

By “Russian,” I mean Russian and Estonian. By “indie scientists,” I mean engineering-inclined criminals. By “breakthrough against,” I mean secret pipeline to avoid. But “vodka” and “taxation” mean exactly what you think they mean. (Vodka and taxation, respectively.)

Now put it all together! That’s right, some clever criminals built a 1.2-mile-long pipe for smuggling vodka across the border from Russia to Estonia. They managed to smuggle about 1600 gallons of vodka through the pipe before the vodka police caught them and put them in jail.

Vodka-piping is a big deal, apparently. See, Russia has vast natural reserves of vodka, and so it can be obtained on the cheap in that country. Its little neighbor, Estonia, isn’t so lucky, however. Vodka isn’t as cheap in Estonia, and you have to pay taxes on Russian vodka if you want to bring it across the border. That’s why these guys built a pipe.

So, right, a long pipe full of booze. Why are we reading about this on award-winning Science Buzz?

What? How could you even ask that? Because, like, it’s super clever! Clever in sort of a dumb, cartoony way, but still… I mean, this is an engineering challenge, isn’t it? It’s a lot of vodka, and a long pipe. Like… let’s see here… we can squeeze some math into this…

Let’s treat this booze pipeline like a long, skinny cylinder. The formula for the volume of a cylinder is the area of its base by its height. Height, of course, will be 1.2 miles. To get the area of the base, we just need to use ol’ pi times the radius squared. Your average garden hose is about ½ to ¾ inches in diameter, but because these are clearly slightly above average guys, we’ll give them a pipe 1 inch in diameter. The radius, then, will be .5 inches. So .5 squared is .25. Pi (3.14159265) times .25 equals .7854 square inches. Ooookay. Now let’s just multiply that by the height (or length, in this case) of the pipe. But, wait… we need to keep our units straight, so lets have that height in inches. 1 mile is 5280 feet, so 1.2 miles is 6336 feet. 6336 times 12 is 76,032. So there are 76,032 inches in 1.2 miles. 76,032 times .7854 (the area of the base, remember) is 59,715.5.

So that pipe held 59,715.5 cubic inches of vodka at one time. But what is that in gallons? Well, there are 231 cubic inches in a gallon, so… 59,715.5/231= 258.5 gallons! Holy Cats, am I right? Hopefully Estonia is down hill from Russia, or there’s a bunch more calculations I don’t feel like thinking about.

Wasn’t that fun? 6th grade math for a 21+ theme? And next time you hear a classmate flapping their mouth hole about how they want to be a Russian gangster when then grow up, so why would they need to learn any math, just point them this way.


Fingerprint errors: Fingerprint "science" is sometimes mistaken
Fingerprint errors: Fingerprint "science" is sometimes mistakenCourtesy blvesboy

Forensic science not always scientific

"The CSI Effect," is a reference to the popular television show CSI -- Crime Scene Investigation and its spin-offs.

In reality, our forensic science system, upon which criminal and civil litigation depends, has been found to be far from meeting scientific standards.

A National Research Council report, "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward," stated:

"The forensic science system in the United States has serious problems that can only be addressed by a national commitment to overhaul the current structure that supports the forensic science community,"

The report urges Congress to authorize and fund a new federal entity, the National Institute of Forensic Science, or NIFS, to oversee how forensic science is practiced in the United States.

232 wrongfully convicted prisoners found to be innocent

The report was welcomed by lawyers for the Innocence Project, which has employed DNA evidence to help free 232 wrongly convicted defendants.

For example, it mentions the case of attorney Brandon Mayfield who in 2004 was erroneously linked by digital fingerprint images to train bombing in Madrid that year. Mayfield was arrested and subsequently released when the FBI acknowledged that it had made a mistake.

Scientific standards needed

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said "many forensic disciplines lack the standards necessary to ensure their scientific reliability in court (and) that forensic laboratories and their experts do not have uniform, mandatory accreditation policies."

Forensic Science System In U.S. Needs Overhaul, Information Week
Crime labs are seriously deficient, report says MSNBC


FingerprintCourtesy leeechy (jkjond)
Criminals need no longer waste time wiping down or washing the cartridge cases of the bullets they intend on using in a crime to get rid of their fingerprints ahead of time, you will still be caught! Researchers at the University of Leicester and the Northamptonshire police have teamed up to develop a technique to see fingerprints even if a metal surface has been wiped down. When people hold metal objects, the natural residues on their hands, like sweat, corrode metal surfaces. Their technique is particularly useful with cartridge casings, because the heat from shooting the weapon helps to imprint the fingerprints on the metal. Basically, you dust the metal of interest with a fine layer of conducting powder, and then apply an electrical charge to it. This causes the conducting powder to be attracted to the areas where the metal is corroded from fingerprints. Would be criminals would need to use abrasive cleaning techniques to remove the layer of corroded metallic surface to destroy their prints. Now don’t you go getting any ideas!


Do you often find yourself watching those prime-time crime dramas on TV asking yourself, "Wow! I didn't know they could figure out whom the killer is based on a single carpet fiber sample found on the sidewalk outside of a crime scene! Can they really do that?!?" Well, some of the processes we see on TV may not be quick as quick and easy, or even possible compared to real life crime investigation.

Lisa Smith, of the University of Leicester School of Psychology, is doing some research to see how these portrayals of forensics on TV are affecting how jurors view forensic evidence in actual court cases. Jurors make their decisions based upon their knowledge, perceived understanding, and beliefs regarding forensic evidence. So the next time you are watching some evening television or even hear a news story regarding some forensic evidence, think twice about the validity of what you see!

Oh, and if you like, there is an online questionnaire for the study!


Nipping crime in the bud: When asked whether or not this method could be used to find the source of other illegal drugs, the Alaskan scientist stated, "Um... What?"  (photo by ilmungo)
Nipping crime in the bud: When asked whether or not this method could be used to find the source of other illegal drugs, the Alaskan scientist stated, "Um... What?"
(photo by ilmungo)

Sometimes I place quotation “marks” randomly. It’s a kind of written-language Tourette’s Syndrome, and I live in constant fear that its effects might “lead” people to false conclusions. “”

Anyhow, scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are developing methods of tracing samples of marijuana back to their points of origin by studying the “isotopic fingerprint” of the plants. Presumably this is to aid people suffering from the advanced stages glaucoma find their medicine.

Whatever the reason for it might be, the process for determining the growing location of the drug is an interesting one. Isotopes, for those of you who are still reading, are, of course, elements with the same number of protons and electrons, but different numbers of neutrons. For example, the element nitrogen can be found with 13 neutrons, 14 neutrons, or 15 neutrons – those are all isotopes of nitrogen.

When you look at the ratio of isotopes in an object, you can sometimes find out where that object came from geographically, because certain areas will sometimes have isotopic signatures. This is how scientists figured out where Otzi the Iceman came from: the enamel on his teeth had an isotopic match with a small region in Italy, so it’s very likely he grew up there.

Applying this basic method to marijuana, the Alaskan scientists are finding that isotopic levels of hydrogen and oxygen in the plants can show where the water they were fed with came from. Carbon in the plant can show whether or not it was grown indoors. Nitrogen isotope levels can also be used to learn about plants’ origins. Combining the information from all of these ratios, researchers are attempting to construct a map of marijuana isotopic signatures, so that any sample with unknown origins could be matched up with a specific location.

In order to achieve this isotope map, however, the project director says he needs “time, money and many more samples of marijuana.”

Science takes back the streets!


Should courts have the power to chemically change a convict's body?: Photo US Dept. of State
Should courts have the power to chemically change a convict's body?: Photo US Dept. of State

Great Britain is considering new laws that would require sex offenders to receive hormone injections. Hormones – such as estrogen and testosterone -- are chemicals produced by the body that stimulate or regulate tissues to act in certain ways. Lawmakers think the injections – also known as “chemical castration” – would prevent future attacks. But some people object, arguing the government has no right to change our body chemistry.

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