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Double Trouble: When Identical Twins Run Into the Law

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Last night, Law & Order: SVU did that “ripped from the headlines” thing where they borrow elements of real-world criminal cases or address current issues in law enforcement. The episode, “Double Strands,” revolved around a topic I've been reading a lot about lately: twins.

[Spoilers Ahead!]

The plot involves a serial rapist and his identical twin brother, who is falsely accused of the crimes. The SVU detectives eventually figured things out, but real-world police have had a lot of trouble with identical twins in several high-profile cases. DNA evidence — a tool that’s supposed to help convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent accurately and efficiently — has complicated cases where a twin or twins have been involved. This is because identical twins are the result of a single fertilized egg that formed one zygote, which then divided into two separate embryos. The siblings have nearly identical DNA, and we've yet to figure out how to discern one twin from the other using DNA analysis.

[End Spoilers]

The Headlines From Which The Story Was Ripped

One summer night in 2001, Darrin Fernandez attempted to break into an apartment in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. When he smashed a window to get inside, he not only alerted the person who lived in the apartment, but also cut himself deeply on the jagged glass. He fled, and police soon found him, still bleeding, as he tried to escape.

When the police analyzed DNA from the broken glass and from Fernandez, they found that he was a match for genetic material recovered in two unsolved sexual assaults cases, both of which were committed within a few blocks of the apartment Fernandez had tried to break into.

Fernandez was convicted of attempted breaking and entering at the apartment. He was also eventually convicted of one of the sexual assaults, for which there was plenty of evidence that implicated him, including the victim noticing a tattoo that his brother did not have (in the SVU episode, both twins have a similar tattoo in the same place). The police and prosecutors could not confidently put the second assault on him, though. The DNA match was the only substantive evidence that they had to go on, and it turns out that it also matched a second person: Fernandez’s identical twin brother, Damien.

There were no witnesses to the assault, no accomplices to roll, and no fingerprints at the scene. Darrin didn’t have an alibi to cover the time of the assault, but neither did Damien. The police couldn’t place either brother at the scene of the crime and the DNA that damned Darrin in another trial had only established reasonable doubt in this one. The case went to trial anyway and after four days of deliberation, there was a hung jury and a mistrial.  In a second trial several months later, the prosecution’s case rested heavily on the fact that Darrin worked as a painter near where the assault occurred, and he had the opportunity to case the neighborhood. Again, the jury was hung and a mistrial was declared.

In 2006 Fernandez went to trial a third time, and prosecutors were allowed to present for the first time evidence that he had committed four break-ins in the victim’s neighborhood within a year (and had been convicted of a similar sexual assault in one of those instances). The victim of that assault, who had not testified at the previous two trials, also took the stand this time around to highlight the similarities her attack shared with this case.

The jury returned a guilty verdict and, five years after his initial arrest, Darrin Fernandez was sentenced to 15 to 20 years on top of 10 to 15 year sentence he was already serving for the first assault.

Police and prosecutors in Grand Rapids, Michigan, may have had it even worse. In 1999, presented with DNA evidence in the rape of a college student, they couldn’t figure out which of their twin suspects to even charge with the crime.

Like the Fernandez cases, there were no witnesses and no fingerprints. To complicate matters, the suspects in this case, Tyrone and Jerome Cooper, both had records for sexual assault (Tyrone assaulted a 10-year-old girl in 1991 and Jerome a 12-year-old girl in 1998).

After hiring a biotechnology company to check some 100,000 DNA characteristics to match one twin or the other to the recovered evidence, the police came up empty. They could only tell both twins that the case would be not be forgotten and would get worked until the statute of limitations prevented prosecution.
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Twins make the justice system work even harder when they’re attached to each other, literally. If a conjoined twin commits, and is convicted of, a crime, how do you punish them without also unjustly punishing their innocent sibling? Slate’s Daniel Engber and legal scholar Nick Kam have both looked at the available historic cases and suggested possible solutions to the problem.

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15 Subatomic Word Origins
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In July 2017, researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) found evidence for a new fundamental particle of the universe: Ξcc++, a special kind of Xi baryon that may help scientists better understand how quarks are held together. Is that Greek to you? Well, it should be. The names for many of the particles that make up the universe—as well as a few that are still purely theoretical—come from ancient Greek. Here’s a look at 15 subatomic etymologies.

1. ION

An ion is any atom or molecule with an overall electric charge. English polymath William Whewell suggested the name in an 1834 letter to Michael Faraday, who made major discoveries in electromagnetism. Whewell based ion on the ancient Greek verb for “go” (ienai), as ions move towards opposite charges. Faraday and Whewell had previously considered zetode and stechion.

2. ELECTRON

George Stoney, an Anglo-Irish physicist, introduced the term electron in 1891 as a word for the fundamental unit of charge carried by an ion. It was later applied to the negative, nucleus-orbiting particle discovered by J. J. Thomson in 1897. Electron nabs the -on from ion, kicking off the convention of using -on as an ending for all particles, and fuses it with electric. Electric, in turn, comes from the Greek for “amber,” in which the property was first observed. Earlier in the 19th century, electron was the name for an alloy of gold and silver.

3. PROTON

The electron’s counterpart, the positively charged proton in the nuclei of all atoms, was named by its discoverer, Ernest Rutherford. He suggested either prouton or proton in honor of William Prout, a 19th-century chemist. Prout speculated that hydrogen was a part of all other elements and called its atom protyle, a Greek coinage joining protos ("first") and hule ("timber" or "material") [PDF]. Though the word had been previously used in biology and astronomy, the scientific community went with proton.

4. NEUTRON

Joining the proton in the nucleus is the neutron, which is neither positive nor negative: It’s neutral, from the Latin neuter, “neither.” Rutherford used neutron in 1921 when he hypothesized the particle, which James Chadwick didn’t confirm until 1932. American chemist William Harkins independently used neutron in 1921 for a hydrogen atom and a proton-electron pair. Harkins’s latter application calls up the oldest instance of neutron, William Sutherland’s 1899 name for a hypothetical combination of a hydrogen nucleus and an electron.

5. QUARK

Protons and neutrons are composed of yet tinier particles called quarks. For their distinctive name, American physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired in 1963 by a line from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” Originally, Gell-Mann thought there were three types of quarks. We now know, though, there are six, which go by names that are just as colorful: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.

6. MESON

Made up of a quark and an antiquark, which has identical mass but opposite charge, the meson is a short-lived particle whose mass is between that of a proton and an electron. Due to this intermediate size, the meson is named for the ancient Greek mesos, “middle.” Indian physicist Homi Bhabha suggested meson in 1939 instead of its original name, mesotron: “It is felt that the ‘tr’ in this word is redundant, since it does not belong to the Greek root ‘meso’ for middle; the ‘tr’ in neutron and electron belong, of course, to the roots ‘neutr’ and ‘electra’.”

7., 8., AND 9. BOSON, PHOTON, AND GLUON

Mesons are a kind of boson, named by English physicist Paul Dirac in 1947 for another Indian physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose, who first theorized them. Bosons demonstrate a particular type of spin, or intrinsic angular momentum, and carry fundamental forces. The photon (1926, from the ancient Greek for “light”) carries the electromagnetic force, for instance, while the gluon carries the so-called strong force. The strong force holds quarks together, acting like a glue, hence gluon.

10. HADRON

In 2012, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) discovered a very important kind of boson: the Higgs boson, which generates mass. The hadrons the LHC smashes together at super-high speeds refer to a class of particles, including mesons, that are held together by the strong force. Russian physicist Lev Okun alluded to this strength by naming the particles after the ancient Greek hadros, “large” or “bulky,” in 1962.

11. LEPTON

Hadrons are opposite, in both makeup and etymology, to leptons. These have extremely tiny masses and don’t interact via the strong force, hence their root in the ancient Greek leptos, “small” or “slender.” The name was first suggested by the Danish chemist Christian Møller and Dutch-American physicist Abraham Pais in the late 1940s. Electrons are classified as leptons.

12. BARYON

Another subtype of hadron is the baryon, which also bears the stamp of Abraham Pais. Baryons, which include the more familiar protons and neutrons, are far more massive, relatively speaking, than the likes of leptons. On account of their mass, Pais put forth the name baryon in 1953, based on the ancient Greek barys, “heavy” [PDF].

13. AXION

Quirky Murray Gell-Mann isn't the only brain with a sense of humor. In his 2004 Nobel Prize lecture, American physicist Frank Wilczek said he named a “very light, very weakly interacting” hypothetical particle the axion back in 1978 “after a laundry detergent [brand], since they clean up a problem with an axial current” [PDF].

14. TACHYON

In ancient Greek, takhys meant “swift,” a fitting name for the tachyon, which American physicist Gerald Feinberg concocted in 1967 for a hypothetical particle that can travel faster than the speed of light. Not so fast, though, say most physicists, as the tachyon would break the fundamental laws of physics as we know them.

15. CHAMELEON

In 2003, the American physicist Justin Khoury and South African-American theoretical physicist Amanda Weltman hypothesized that the elusive dark energy may come in the form of a particle, which they cleverly called the chameleon. Just as chameleons can change color to suit their surroundings, so the physical characteristics of the chameleon particle change “depending on its environment,” explains Symmetry, the online magazine dedicated to particle physics. Chameleon itself derives from the ancient Greek khamaileon, literally “on-the-ground lion.”

For more particle names, see Symmetry’s “A Brief Etymology of Particle Physics,” which helped provide some of the information in this list.

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Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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