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Beyond CSI: 10 Fascinating Forensic Careers

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If you were to believe everything you saw on television about a day in the life of a forensic science professional, it would be all crime scene investigation all the time. As pulse-poundingly exciting as the investigative antics on Dexter, CSI, NCIS and Criminal Minds may be, the day-to-day duties of forensic professionals aren’t always so cinematic. From accountants to astronomers, here are 10 lesser-known—but entirely fascinating—forensic careers.

1. FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGIST

If you’ve ever watched an episode of Bones, you kinda sorta know what’s in a forensic anthropologist’s job description—to help identify and investigate decayed or damaged skeletal remains. If the science in the show seems sound, that’s because (for the most part) it is: The series is based on the life, work and writing of Kathy Reichs, who is one of only 82 forensic anthropologists certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (she’s also a best-selling author and the show’s producer).

2. FORENSIC LINGUIST

From pronunciation to word order, the patterns with which a person communicates are almost as distinct as the sound of his or her voice. Which makes them an identifiable piece of evidence in a criminal investigation, particularly in cases where fraud or plagiarism are concerned. Though the field of forensic linguistics emerged in the late 1960s, it didn’t come into popular use in the U.S. until the mid-1990s, when FBI forensic linguist James Fitzgerald convinced his employer that publishing the “manifesto” of the Unabomber could possibly help them catch the man who had killed three people and injured nearly two dozen others with the homemade bombs he’d been mailing to unsuspecting victims for nearly two decades. It worked. Several people called in tips after reading the manifesto, recognizing the writing style, which eventually led them to Ted Kaczynski.

3. FORENSIC ACCOUNTANT

Some investigators carry a gun; others wield an adding machine. Consider this: When the FBI was founded in 1908, 12 of its 34 original investigators were bank examiners. Today, about 15 percent of the FBI’s special agents are accountants. Forensic accountants are also found in accounting firms of varying sizes, as well as in law firms and police and government agencies, where they investigate a range of crimes that have been committed in the name of financial gain, which could include anything from murder to securities fraud. 

4. FORENSIC ARCHAEOLOGIST

Part Indiana Jones and part Sherlock Holmes, forensic archaeologists work with the police and other government agencies to locate, excavate and analyze historical evidence, from buried personal items to mass graves. Employing the same techniques they would at a dig site, forensic archaeologists help to organize a crime scene and preserve potential evidence and are being increasingly called upon by organizations such as the United Nations in genocide investigations, most recently in Rwanda, Argentina, and Bosnia.

5. FORENSIC OPTOMETRIST

Diagnosing astigmatism and glaucoma is all in a day’s work for an optometrist. Catching a murderer? Not so much. But Graham Strong has spent more than two decades doing just that, helping to prove the ownership of eyewear evidence left behind at crime scenes. It all started in 1989, when he assisted investigators in proving that the glasses found beneath the body of a murder victim were the same ones that their key suspect was wearing in an earlier mug shot. “I obtained more than 20 measurements that enabled me to conclude that the glasses found at the scene were identical to photographs in every way,” Strong noted of his investigative process. The evidence resulted in a first-degree murder conviction. 

6. FORENSIC ASTRONOMER

Not even Copernicus could have likely imagined that the field he pioneered would one day be able to aid in the delivery of legal justice. But the celestial bodies that continue to confound us regular folk have been used in much more practical ways for several centuries now, dating all the way back to Abraham Lincoln’s days as a lawyer, when he successfully defended a client against murder by being able to establish the position of the moon on the night of the altercation (which disproved the testimony of the prosecution’s key witness).

7. FORENSIC ODONTOLOGIST

In the late 1960s, there was a serial killer and rapist on the loose in Montreal who earned the nickname “The Vampire Rapist” because of the signature bite marks he left on the breasts of his victims. That vicious calling card became the undoing of Wayne Boden, the 23-year-old former model who was arrested in 1971 when Gordon Swann, a local orthodontist, was able to show 29 points of similarity between Boden’s chompers and the marks left on the body of Elizabeth Porteous, his final victim. Boden’s conviction was the first in North America to rest on odontological evidence, but certainly not the last; in 1979, forensic odontologist Richard Souviron was a key witness in the prosecution of Ted Bundy for the Chi Omega murders at Florida State University.

8. FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST

Forensic pathologists—medical doctors tasked with examining corpses to determine identity and the cause and manner of death—have found themselves in the spotlight in recent years with the popularity of reality television series like Dr. G: Medical Examiner, which follows Dr. Jan Garavaglia, Orlando’s Chief Medical Examiner, who famously identified the remains of Caylee Anthony. A decade earlier, HBO premiered Autopsy, a documentary series in which Dr. Michael Baden—the former Chief Medical Examiner of New York City—explained the science behind some of the most notorious crimes of the century, including the assassination of JFK, the death of Sid Vicious, and the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson. Lesser-known Autopsy cases examined how maggots, tattoos, breast implants, and chewing gum have all helped solve crimes. 

9. FORENSIC MICROSCOPIST

The most damning evidence at a crime scene is usually the kind that is impossible to see with the naked eye. Enter forensic microscopy, the science of trace evidence, which can offer valuable clues in solving a crime by examining a variety of substances such as hairs, fibers, soil, dust, building materials, paint chips, botanicals, and food. Skip Palenik has spent a lifetime using microscropy to solve real-world crimes, analyzing trace evidence in the cases of the Hillside Strangler, JonBenét Ramsey, the Unabomber, and the Green River Killer. In 1992, he founded Microtrace LLC, an independent laboratory and consultation firm focused on small particle analysis. 

10. FORENSIC NURSE

Nurses are the first point of contact for many a crime victim, so it only makes sense that they can play an important role in the legal system. From collecting blood and DNA samples to counseling crime victims, the specializations of a forensic nurse can vary, as can their training. Writer-producer Serita Stevens—a forensic nurse herself—explores the field in depth in her book Forensic Nurse: The New Role of the Nurse in Law Enforcement, which notes of the job that “When the human body itself is a crime scene, [the forensic nurse] is the most critical investigator of all.”

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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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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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