Science 101: Forensics


The Ultimate Illustrated Guide for Nonscientists

Science 101: Forensics takes you on a behind-the-scenes journey into the world of the investigators and scientists who work to solve crimes through the use of forensic science. It examines tried-and-true forensics methods, as well as cutting-edge forensic disciplines little known to the general public.

  • Information on fingerprint and DNA identification, trace ...
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The Ultimate Illustrated Guide for Nonscientists

Science 101: Forensics takes you on a behind-the-scenes journey into the world of the investigators and scientists who work to solve crimes through the use of forensic science. It examines tried-and-true forensics methods, as well as cutting-edge forensic disciplines little known to the general public.

  • Information on fingerprint and DNA identification, trace evidence, arson detection, crime-scene procedures, and more
  • History of forensics from ancient times to the present day, with an explanation of the many scientific fields that contribute to forensics
  • More than 250 full-color photographs and illustrations
  • Ready Reference section with at-a-glance facts on forensics
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060891305
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/26/2007
  • Series: Science 101 Series
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 659,265
  • Product dimensions: 7.37 (w) x 9.12 (h) x 0.47 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Science 101: Forensics

Chapter One

Forensics: Past to Present

Do the roots of modern forensics reach deep into prehistory, when late Paleolithic artists painted the walls of European caves with haunting impressions of their worlds, both natural and supernatural? A few of these ancient masters apparently dipped their fingertips in paint and left their prints alongside their work, as if to take credit by individual signatures.

Whether or not these early painters recognized the uniqueness of their fingerprints, there are techniques still employed in modern criminal forensics that were used far back in antiquity, although in unsophisticated form and by no means systematized. It was not until the early centuries of the second millennium that forensics began evolving into an organized body of knowledge and practice. As novel insights arose into how scientific disciplines could be applied to evaluating evidence and new technologies were invented to implement those applications, forensics developed into a force with a profound impact on the world's legal systems. Today, the pace of forensic evolution seems to be increasing geometrically as methods unheard of only a few decades ago have become routine and scientific advancement continually fosters bold new breakthroughs.

When Did Forensics Begin?

Writing in the Smithsonian Institution annual report of 1912, famed sinologist and antiquarian Berthold Laufer took issue with claims that the ancient Sumerians used fingerprinting for identification more than 4,000 years earlier. A German-born Jew who felt "healthier as a Chinese than a European," he argued that fingerprints on ancientMesopotamian pottery were not purposeful markings, as some scholars claimed, but accidental. As might be expected from an avowed sinophile, Laufer made the argument that fingerprinting originated in China, perhaps as long as 3,000 years ago. He was probably right, if not about the dates, then about the country of origin. Although there are hints that the ancient Babylonians may have used fingerprinting as a personal indicator, the technique seems to have truly taken hold in China, perhaps during the Tang Dynasty, which started in 618 CE.

Chinese Origins

Indeed, China can be considered the wellspring from which forensic science as a system eventually flowed. A Chinese physician, Wu Pu, supposedly settled legal cases by medical testimony in the third century. In the thirteenth century, Chinese physician and judge Song Ci wrote Xi Yuan Ji Lu, the classic book still studied and cited by forensics experts today. In Xi Yuan Ji Lu, loosely translated as "The Washing Away of Wrongs," Song Ci outlines autopsy procedures in which he urges coroners to literally get their hands dirty, forget the stench, and meticulously examine a corpse. The book also shows how the results of autopsies could be used in court. If a victim of suffocation had water in the lungs, Song Ci explains, he died by drowning. If the throat was bruised from pressure, the cause was strangulation. These distinctions may be the first recorded instances of medical science applied to solving crime.


Forensic techniques were also applied to legal issues in Europe at quite early dates. Etruscan law ordered the equivalent of a caesarean section upon the death of a pregnant woman. Quintilian, a rhetorician and attorney of first-century Rome, showed that a bloody palm print found at a murder scene and used to frame a man for the killing was not that of the accused. The man was freed. Quintilian's skillful use of rhetoric in his court arguments, coupled with the way he employed prints as evidence of innocence, neatly links both realms of forensics—the use of language and of science in legal situations (see introduction).

More than two centuries before Quintilian, if legend is to be believed, Archimedes used forensics of a rudimentary kind to reveal that a goldsmith had attempted to defraud King Hieron II of Syracuse. Hieron, a relative of Archimedes, asked the mathematician to determine if his new crown was pure gold, as the smith who made it claimed, or was alloyed with a cheaper metal, such as copper or silver. The bulk of the gold could not be calculated, however, without pounding or melting down the crown; it was not possible to weigh it against a chunk of pure gold of equal size. Archimedes decided to think about this problem while in the bath. As water sloshed out of the tub as he got in it, he had his famous brainstorm. He suddenly realized that his body had displaced its own volume in water—Archimedes had discovered buoyancy. Excitedly, he ran naked through the streets shouting "Eureka!" and forthwith demonstrated that the crown displaced a greater volume of water than a pure gold bar of equal weight. The crown was, indisputably, a fakery and the smith a swindler.

Early Forensics

The ancient Greeks had a word for it, even if they seldom performed it: "autopsy," dissection so that a corpse could be viewed from a perspective more than skin deep. In fact, autopsy literally means to see with one's own eyes. Yet, even though they pondered the intricacies of human anatomy, the Greeks still looked askance at the dissection of dead bodies.

Still, a few accounts from antiquity suggest that anatomical examination might have been at least occasionally considered as an aid in solving crime. The Roman physician Antistius, for example, attempted to determine which of Julius Caesar's multiple stab wounds was the fatal one (the second, he said) and presented his evidence before the Roman Senate. Yet, although anecdotal evidence such as this suggests that rudimentary principles of pathology were applied to crime solving even in the ancient world, they were not applied in organized fashion until long after the Classical era. Organized application really began in the Western world during the Middle Ages. For example, judges in the courts of Charlemagne relied upon medical testimony in cases of murder, abortion, and incest. In medieval England, the title bestowed on the person invested with the authority to determine time and cause of death indicated its high status: "Coroner" derives from the Norman French word for crown, signifying a crown official. On the continent, the first recorded post-mortem examination took place in Cremona, Italy, in 1286. Meanwhile, in China, medical experts were examining bodies to determine when, if not how, they died.

Science 101: Forensics. Copyright © by Edward Ricciuti. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Welcome to Forensics     1
Forensics: Past to Present     5
When Did Forensics Begin?     6
Early Forensics     8
Tracking the Poisoners     10
Modern Forensics arrives     12
Science Tracks the Criminals     14
Early Crime Laboratories     16
Scene of the Crime     19
First Response     20
Conducting a Crime Investigation     22
Trace Evidence     24
Blood Evidence     26
Picking Up Prints     28
Specialized Photography     30
Arson Scenes     32
Crime Laboratories     35
The FBI Laboratory     36
Inside the FBI Laboratory     38
The DEA Laboratory     40
Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory     42
ATF Laboratories     44
laboratories for All Purposes     46
State and Local Crime Laboratories     48
Crime Laboratories Around the World     50
Forensic Pathology     53
Coroner or Medical Examiner?     54
Dead Men Tell Tales     56
The Autopsy     58
Asphyxation     60
Knife Wounds     62
Bullet Wounds     64
A Different Kind of dentist     66
Forensic Anthropology     69
The Role of Forensic Anthropology     70
The Study of Bones     72
Reading Bones     74
A Classic Case     76
The Body Farm     78
Re-Creating Faces     80
Human Rights     82
Traditional and Tested     85
About Fingerprints     86
Fingerprint Characteristics     88
Foolproof Fingerprints?     90
Ballistics     92
Firearms Comparisons     94
Trace Evidence     96
Questioned Documents     98
Ready Reference     100
Advances in Forensic Science     100
Becoming a Forensic Scientist     102
Forensic Science Specialties     106
DNA and Microbial Forensics     109
About DNA     110
Discovery of DNA Fingerprints     112
How DNA Testing Works     114
DNA Successes     116
DNA Testing After the Fact     118
Other Uses of DNA Testing     120
Microbes as Evidence     122
The Chemistry of Crime     125
Testing Techniques     126
The Role of the Toxicologist     128
Poisons     130
Drug Overdoses     132
Alcohol     134
Clandestine Drug Labs     136
Arson     138
Profiling Criminals     141
A Profile of Profiling     142
The Development of Profiling     144
Profiling from Evidence     146
Profiling Projections     148
Introducing the Serial Killer     150
Varieties of Serial Killer     152
Profiles of Arsonists     154
Clues from Nature     157
Forensic Botany     158
Forensic Palynology     160
The Properties of Pollen     162
Soils Yield Secrets     164
Storm Stories     166
Insects Tell Time     168
Insects in Investigations     170
Digging Into Mysteries     173
Who Killed King Tut?     174
The Iceman Mystery     176
Cannibal Cousins?     178
The Bog Man Murders     180
Mass Graves and Human Rights      182
The World Trade Center     184
The Old-Fashioned Way     186
Forensics, Fact and Fiction     189
Forensics Foreshadowed     190
Conan Doyle as a Detective     192
Forensics Fiction     194
Media Superstars     196
Forensics on Television     198
The CSI Effect     200
Pop Science, Real Science     202
Glossary     204
Further Reading     206
At the Smithsonian     208
Index     210
Acknowledgments/Picture Credits     217
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2009

    Good Summary of the Subject

    Excellently compiled, reader-friendly overview of the field of forensics, including new innovations up to the date of publication. The technicalities of forensics is kept to a minimum for the general public, so you may wish to consult a more detailed text for further and more specific information. But, this would still be a good introduction to the subject for anyone. Plenty of relevant photographs accompany the individual sub-topics, which are organized in appropriate chapters that build into one another. Though the book doesn't take long to read through and can't answer every question, it would be a good reference guide to leave on your shelf to consult some core concepts regarding a field that continues to advance and increase its importance in today's society everyday.

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