Mad About Science: Forensic Sciences

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

You’ve got your crew, you cased the joint, you’ve scribbled out a plan on a napkin and memorized everything you’re going to say. You’re about to pull off the biggest heist of your career: the Carne Asada Caper; the biggest beef burrito this side of Highway 95. You feel you’ve thought everything through; you sure about that?

Take a step back from your five-finger discount and think for a moment. You’re going to need a heck of a lot more than a getaway driver, a balaclava and a pair of your dad’s driving gloves to pull this one off. Forensic sciences have evolved well beyond dusting for fingerprints and analyzing video.

Take Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry, or LA-ICP-MS into account. No, it’s not a gun from a video game, it’s a system designed to break down samples of broken glass to their atomic structure and analyze their chemical makeup to match them perfectly to other samples, based on who made them, where they were made, and where they happened to be at the time of a crime. Gonna’ break the taco truck’s glass? As soon as a search warrant hits your black turtleneck, they’ll find microscopic glass particulate and analyze it with that, matching you to the broken window.

Gonna’ rip them off with a fake name and check? Sure, you may swipe that delicious carne asada, but you will definitely get caught. Should the authorities find your fake checkbook with your fingerprints all over it, they can use a machine called a Visual Spectral Comparator 2000, or VSC2000, to examine indentations in the subsheets you left when writing that fake check. Gonna’ try and cook the books with fake accounts? They can track that, too, with the help of artificial intelligence.

Link Analysis Software, and recently AI like IBM’s Watson, have been used to comb through mountains of bookkeeping to track and isolate unusual behavior that can usually indicate intentional wrongdoing, to help build cases for things like wire fraud, tax evasion, or paying off a mercenary to take your burrito by force.

Before you get any bright ideas there, ballistics are one of the easiest ways for law enforcement to catch you. The ALIAS (Advanced Ballistics Analysis System, acronyms are weird) is about as cool as it sounds. It’s basically just a Mac Pro computer with an HD monitor and a tool that uses lasers to scan the surfaces of bullets and spent cartridges down to the width of 1/50 of a human hair, then produces a 3D rendering on the computer screen for an analyst to… Well… Analyze. It’s more reliable than two-dimensional photographs and you can see things you couldn’t see with a photograph, like how the bullet would warp when impacting certain surfaces at specific trajectories.

Let’s say you somehow pulled it off. You got away with burrito murder, but it was just too much for you. You had to get rid of the evidence. Crumple the remains up in the tinfoil carcass, drive 26 miles into the Kaniksu National Forest and bury it. No one will ever know.

That is, until some startled hikers come upon the remains of your shameful crime and report it to the authorities. Next thing you know, you’re watching the 11-O’clock news with an aerial view of your crime scene and guys in FBI blazers wheeling a hunk of foil out on a gurney. It’s been years, the case has gone cold, surely no one will ever know it was you, right?


Though the organic material would have mostly decayed by that point, if there were even a tiny shaving of bone left anywhere in that burrito, forensic scientists could analyze how old it is using Carbon-14 dating, the same thing anthropologists study human remains from a time when we hadn’t yet learned the genius of swaddling meat to make food. If there’s enough of a sample, they can even break it down to figure out where the cow that made the carne lived, and with some good ol’ fashioned detectiving, find out where it was sold.

I’m putting on my sunglasses just to take them off and say: Your case just got…Caliente.


All of your options are exhausted. The heist is over before it has even begun. What are you to do?

Just pay for the dang burrito, man. If I learned anything in my life it’s that food tastes better when you pay for it.

My ludicrous examples aside, if you want to see some real forensics at work, the library will be hosting a science double-header on Wednesday, March 20, at 4:30 p.m. Starting with a presentation about your heart by retired heart surgeon, Brad Huhta. Immediately following will be an interactive presentation on forensic sciences by Marie Bayles, a former forensic scientist. See if you can put your inner sleuth to the test and solve actual crimes using actual forensic evidence from real-life crimes!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a burrito to pay for.

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