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The Nutshell Studies: How a Wealthy Grandmother Revolutionized Crime Scene Investigation

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Photo Courtesy of Erin N. Bush, Death in Diorama.

Every year, police officers from around the world gather for the Harvard Associates in Police Science (HAPS) Seminar. During the three-day event, the officers attend lectures and participate in workshops covering such macabre topics as “Homicidal Drownings” and “Investigation of Deaths of Infants and Children.” To face the worst of mankind’s dark side requires a certain sense of detachment and steeliness that not just anyone can muster. So it’s a surprise that the founder of HAPS—and some would argue the most important figure in the field of modern forensic analysis—was a 67-year old grandmother who liked to make dolls.

A Respectable Heiress

Frances Glessner Lee. Photo Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Frances Glessner Lee was born in Chicago in 1878 to John and Frances Glessner. Mr. Glessner was the vice president of International Harvester, a company that manufactured farm machinery, so the family lived in the lap of luxury on the Windy City’s lakefront. Home schooling was common among the social elites, and the finest tutors taught Frances and her brother, George. Frances especially excelled in her studies, and hoped to go on to practice either medicine or law. When she wasn’t hitting the books, Frances was learning more domestic skills, like sewing, knitting, interior design, and painting, which she took to with a similar enthusiasm and skill.

When it came time for the children to attend college, George was sent directly to Harvard to pursue his degree. Frances’ dreams, on the other hand, were dashed by her father, who insisted she follow the path of a respectable heiress. At 19, Frances Glessner became Frances Glessner Lee when she married up-and-coming lawyer Blewett Lee. The couple went on to have three boys, but the marriage was not a happy one. After a lengthy separation, Frances and Blewett divorced in 1914.

The “Mother” of CSI

In her 20s, Lee met a friend of her brother’s named George Magrath. Magrath was studying medicine at Harvard with plans to go into the relatively new field of legal medicine. After hearing Magrath’s stories of solving crimes using scientific analysis just like her favorite literary sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, Lee became intrigued by the field.

Over the course of many years, with Magrath’s guidance, Lee became a self-taught crime scene analyst. Using her wealth and social influence, she was able to acquire books, attend lectures, and gain access to autopsies, crime scenes, and other places laypeople were normally not allowed. Although she was never officially involved in a case, her opinions were respected and appreciated by the officers in charge, to the point they often called her “Mother” Lee.

After her brother died in 1930, leaving Lee in control of much of the family fortune, she became a benefactor to Magrath and the field of forensic science. Lee helped establish Harvard's Legal Medicine Department with a $250,000 endowment (about $3.8 million today), and founded the school's Magrath Library in 1936 by donating 1000 crime scene analysis books and manuscripts from her vast personal collection.

Not only did Lee champion the field of forensic medicine, but she also broke new ground for women. In 1943, the New Hampshire State Police made her an honorary captain, the first woman to hold the position. Additionally, she was the first female member of the International Association for the Chiefs of Police, and of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Although Magrath died in 1938, Lee continued the mission by establishing HAPS in 1945 and hosting its now-famous training seminar. Lee personally organized the event, from selecting the seminar topics to booking lecturers, and even oversaw every detail of the formal dinner party that closed out the conference.

Despite all of these accomplishments, what Lee is perhaps best known for are her disturbing dollhouse dioramas.

A Model Solution


Photo Courtesy of Erin N. Bush, Death in Diorama.

Around the same time that she was busy starting HAPS, Lee heard a common complaint from many young officers trying to learn crime scene analysis: there simply weren’t enough crimes to analyze.

To solve the problem, Lee turned to a hobby she had enjoyed for many years—creating miniature dioramas. Dioramas were a common hobby for women in the early part of the 20th century, especially for wealthy heiresses with a lot of time on their hands. One of Lee’s first forays into the craft was a miniature scene featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, built when Lee was 35, as a gift for her mother. Lee spent two months creating 90 musicians, each in hand-sewn clothes, playing tiny sheet music with hand-made miniature instruments.

Her skills served her well as she created miniature death scenes for forensic training purposes, a project she called the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. She got the name from a detective who said, “As the investigator, you must bear in mind that there is a two-fold responsibility—to clear the innocent as well as expose the guilty. Seek only the facts ... find the truth in a nutshell.”

It's All in the Details

Photo Courtesy of Susan Marks.

For the macabre miniatures, Lee created composite scenarios taken from real-life crimes, accidental deaths and suicides, and combined them with anecdotes from police officers, medical examiners and morgue workers. She also recreated cases described in her many field books and manuals. Using these pieces, she would construct one-inch-to-one-foot scale rooms, completely enclosed in glass to preserve the integrity of the scene, where a mysterious death has occurred.

The victim dolls were all hand-made and decorated by Lee, who spent countless hours getting every piece just right. She cut and sewed all the clothes by hand, even going so far as to knit tiny socks with straight pins to make them as realistic as possible. Lee also painted each victim to represent scientific clues, such as the level of decomposition that would be expected on a body that had been left undiscovered for a few days. Lee also painted unique clues on the dolls, such as tiny bite marks left by an assailant.

To ensure the scene was complex enough to be realistic, Lee overstuffed it with props that might be important to the case. For example, many Nutshells include details like tiny hand-rolled cigarettes, accurate dates on hand-painted wall calendars, scale-model clothespins whittled from wood, medicine bottles with hand-painted prescription labels, little envelopes complete with little stamps, and date-accurate headlines on miniature newspapers. These were in addition to the instruments and decorations of death, like tiny, bloody knives, or blood splatter patterns on the wallpaper.

The scale rooms and furniture were mostly made by craftsman Ralph Mosher and his son, whom Lee hired to work on the Nutshells full-time. Like the props, the rooms and buildings were incredibly detailed, down to working shutters, blinds, light switches and bulbs, and tiny keys for tiny locks on tiny doors. One of Mosher’s most famous creations, a Nutshell called “The Burned Cabin,” took the craftsman months to construct, only to have the interior scorched by a blowtorch to provide accurate evidence of a fire in the room.

Tiny Teaching Tools

Photo Courtesy of Erin N. Bush, Death in Diorama.

Despite the countless hours spent on each one, Lee and the Moshers were able to complete two or three Nutshells every year. The dioramas were donated to Harvard for use in both the classroom and at the annual HAPS seminars. Before studying the physical evidence in the diorama, students were given a witness’ statement, but the rest was up to their sleuthing and scientific skills.

Although every Nutshell has an official solution to the mysterious death, the purpose was not to necessarily have a trainee solve the case. It was more important that students learn how to observe and analyze the scene using a scientific approach. Even if they couldn’t solve the case, presenting a thorough list of evidence analysis was considered a major victory.

The Nutshells Today

Photo Courtesy of Erin N. Bush, Death in Diorama.

Lee died in 1962 at the age of 83, but the 20 Nutshell Studies she made were used at Harvard for HAPS seminars and as teaching aids until 1966, when Harvard’s Legal Medicine Department was dissolved. But Lee’s legacy lives on, as the surviving 18 dioramas are currently housed at the Baltimore Medical Examiner’s office, where they are still used for training future crime scene analysts.

To see more of the Nutshells, check out Erin Bush’s excellent “Death in Diorama” website.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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