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15 Unique Facts About Fingerprints

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They've been with you since before you were born, but how much do you really know about the lines and ridges on your fingers, palms, and feet?

1. THEY’RE THE RESULT OF A STRUGGLE.

Human skin has several layers, and each layer has sub-layers. A developing fetus is constantly straining and stretching these layers, which can snag on each other. Scientists believe fingerprints form when the bottom layer of the epidermis grows at a different rate than the rest of the skin, causing it to buckle and tug on the dermis. Your fingerprints are made up of several skin layers twisted together [PDF], kind of like a soft-serve swirl.

2. BEFORE FINGERPRINTS, THERE WERE BONE MEASUREMENTS.

Image Credit: Jebulon via WikimediaCommons // CC0 BY 1.0

Alphonse Bertillon was a French policeman and researcher who capitalized on the fact that each person’s body proportions are different. He developed a way of using photographs to measure a person’s unique dimensions—a technique that’s still reflected in jailhouse mug shots. The Bertillon System, as it came to be known, was adopted by law enforcement agencies in Europe and North America and used for three decades. 

3. SOME PEOPLE ARE BORN WITHOUT THEM.

Three genetic conditions can prevent fingerprints from forming: Naegeli-Franceschetti-Jadassohn syndrome (NFJS), Dermatopathia pigmentosa reticularis (DPR), and adermatoglyphia. NFJS and DPR cause a range of symptoms, most much worse than smooth fingers. Adermatoglyphia, on the other hand, has just one indicator: no fingerprints. It’s sometimes referred to as “immigration delay disease,” for the trouble it causes people trying to cross borders. 

4. THEY KILLED THE BERTILLON SYSTEM.

In 1901, a man named William West began a life sentence in the Leavenworth, Kansas, penitentiary for murder. His Bertillon measurements were taken and dutifully cataloged. Two years later, Will West entered Leavenworth. When asked if he’d been there before, he said no, but the clerk took his measurements and photograph and found that they were an exact match for the man listed as William West who was currently in the prison. Befuddled, the clerk compared Will’s fingerprints with William's and found that, indeed, they were two completely different men. The story is still a matter of debate—some think the men might have been twins—but it soon became folklore among forensic scientists, illustrating not only the advantages of fingerprinting but the fatal flaws that would lead to the abandonment of the Bertillon system.

5. FINGERPRINT ANALYSIS IS FALLIBLE.

Image Credit: Daekow via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

When examining fingerprints, experts attempt to match as many points of comparison as possible, but there’s no minimum for a match, at least not in the United States. Other countries have set standards for what constitutes a positive identification, but not us. On top of that, there’s an inevitable element of human error. A 2011 study [PDF] found a false positive rate of 0.1 percent. That may not sound like much until you realize that 0.1 percent of the FBI’s annual fingerprint intake is 60,000 people, or 60,000 potential false positive IDs.

6. KOALAS HAVE THEM, TOO.

Image Credit: Mike R via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

So far, we’re aware of only a few non-human animals with unique fingerprints, such as gorillas, chimpanzees, and koalas. Given apes’ and koalas’ arboreal lifestyles, scientists suspect fingerprints evolved as a consequence of living in trees. The fingerprints of koalas are so similar to humans’ that even experts have trouble telling them apart. We haven’t heard of anyone blaming their misdeeds on a koala yet, but it’s probably just a matter of time. 

7. FINGERPRINTS ARE INCREDIBLY DURABLE …

Image Credit: Zephyris via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Even in death, our fingerprints stick around, which makes them very helpful in identifying bodies. Or fingers, in the case of Hans Galassi. After losing a few fingers in an accident on the water, the wakeboarder figured they were gone for good. Then a human finger turned up in the belly of a trout and, sure enough, it was one of Galassi’s. “If a hand is found in water you will see that the epidermis starts to come away from the dermis like a glove,” fingerprint expert Allen Bayle told the BBC. “This sounds gruesome, but if a hand has been badly damaged, I cut the epidermis off and put my own hand inside that glove and try to fingerprint it like that.” (Once the severed finger had been identified, it was offered to Mr. Galassi, who declined to take it back.)

8. … BUT YOU CAN LOSE THEM …

Rough tactile work like bricklaying and chemotherapy drugs like capecitabine can erode and even erase fingerprints. “Just a good case of poison ivy would do it," forensics expert Edward Richards said in Scientific American. Don’t get too worried: "Left alone,” he said, “your skin replaces at a fairly good rate, so unless you've done permanent damage to the tissue, it will regenerate." 

9. … ESPECIALLY IF YOU’RE DETERMINED.

By the 1930s, fingerprint analysis was standard practice in U.S. law enforcement, and criminals had begun intentionally trying to remove their fingerprints. As you might imagine, the results were grisly and mixed. Some tried to file off their prints, while others attempted to cut them out. Notorious gangster John Dillinger burnt his own prints off with acid, a hardcore decision that kind of worked. (His fingerprints were never used against him, but after his death the faint traces of his former ridges and whorls could still be seen.) Robber Robert Phillips talked a doctor into grafting skin from his chest onto his fingertips. Unfortunately for him, he neglected to remove the prints on his palms. 

10. FINGERPRINT SENSORS MIGHT WORK FOR YOUR PETS, TOO.

Image Credit: cloudzilla via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Apple created quite a buzz in 2013 when it introduced a fingerprint-coded screen lock with the iPhone 5s. Some of that buzz soon focused on cats, however, after a TechCrunch writer “commandeer[ed] a cat” and used its toe pad to create a new profile. “The cat’s paw worked,” he wrote, “and while it encountered more frequent failures than did a fingerprint, it was able to unlock the phone again repeatedly when positioned correctly on the sensor.”

11. MARK TWAIN ANTICIPATED THE VALUE OF FINGERPRINT EVIDENCE.

Two of the author’s books, Life on the Mississippi and Pudd’n Head Wilson, feature the use of fingerprints to nab criminals. Twain’s focus on fingerprinting was incredibly prescient; the books were published in 1883 and 1893, respectively, but U.S. officials wouldn’t implement fingerprinting practices here until the early 20th century. 

12. WORLD WAR II SAW A BOOM IN FINGERPRINT COLLECTION.

Wartime vigilance meant that the FBI was collecting more prints than ever before, from soldiers, foreign agents, and military suppliers, as well as draft dodgers and potential spies. By 1943, the collection included more than 70 million prints. To manage the explosion of information, the agency moved to a big warehouse (nicknamed the “Fingerprint Factory”) and hired and trained thousands of women to sort prints 10 hours a day, six days a week. 

13. THERE HAVE BEEN SEVERAL CASES OF MASS FINGERPRINTING.

In desperate times, British police have resorted to desperate measures. The shocking murder of a three-year-old girl in 1948 inspired officials to demand prints from more than 40,000 local men. Even with all those prints, they failed to find a match—until they tracked down the 200 men who had failed to produce prints. Among them, they found their culprit. Since then, despite protestations from Britain’s National Council for Civil Liberties, the police have conducted several mass print collections, several of which were successful. 

That sort of thing doesn’t go over too well in the United States, but it has been done. The Fourth Amendment restricts the use of fingerprint collection to “reasonable” identification of persons of interest in criminal cases. Law enforcement officers could get around this if they chose, but it wouldn’t be a popular move.

14. THE FBI STORES EVERYBODY’S PRINTS TOGETHER.

If you’ve ever applied for a teaching job, the police force, or any government position, the FBI has your fingerprints—and they’re treating them like a criminal’s. In 2015, the agency announced that they were melding their criminal and civil fingerprint databases. They also decided to make all files searchable for potential culprits.

15. THE MICROBIOME IS THE NEW FINGERPRINT.

Like the whorls and loops of your fingerprints, the tiny ecosystems in and on your body are yours and yours alone. The collective DNA of the bacteria, fungi, and viruses that make up your microbiome is a huge repository of information about your health, environment, diet, and genetics—and it’s completely unique. Forensic scientists are currently exploring the possibility of using microbiomes for identification, and testimony based on microbial forensic techniques has already been admitted in some U.S. courts.

 

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11 Secrets of Bodyguards
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When CEOs, celebrities, and the extremely wealthy need personal protection, they call in men and women with a particular set of skills. Bodyguards provide a physical barrier against anyone wishing their clients harm, but there’s a lot more to the job—and a lot that people misunderstand about the profession. To get a better idea of what it takes to protect others, Mental Floss spoke with several veteran security experts. Here’s what they told us about being in the business of guaranteeing safety.

1. BIGGER ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER.

When working crowd control or trying to corral legions of screaming teenagers, having a massive physical presence comes in handy. But not all "close protection specialists" need to be the size of a professional wrestler. “It really depends on the client,” says Anton Kalaydjian, the founder of Guardian Professional Security in Florida and former head of security for 50 Cent. “It’s kind of like shopping for a car. Sometimes they want a big SUV and sometimes they want something that doesn’t stick out at all. There’s a need for a regular-looking guy in clothes without an earpiece, not a monster.”

2. GUNS (AND FISTS) ARE PRETTY MUCH USELESS.

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Depending on the environment—protecting a musician at a concert is different from transporting the reviled CEO of a pharmaceutical company—bodyguards may or may not come armed. According to Kent Moyer, president and CEO of World Protection Group and a former bodyguard for Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, resorting to gunplay means the security expert has pretty much already failed. “People don’t understand this is not a business where we fight or draw guns,” Moyer says. “We’re trained to cover and evacuate and get out of harm’s way. The goal is no use of force.” If a guard needs to draw a gun to respond to a gun, Moyer says he’s already behind. “If I fight, I failed. If I draw a gun, I failed.”

3. SOMETIMES THEY’RE HIRED TO PROTECT EMPLOYERS FROM EMPLOYEES.

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Workplace violence has raised red flags for companies who fear retribution during layoffs. Alan Schissel, a former New York City police sergeant and founder of Integrated Security, says he dispatches guards for what he calls “hostile work termination” appointments. “We get a lot of requests to provide armed security in a discreet manner while somebody is being fired,” he says. “They want to be sure the individual doesn’t come back and retaliate.”

4. SOME OF THEM LOVE TMZ.

For protection specialists who take on celebrity clients, news and gossip site TMZ.com can prove to be a valuable resource. “I love TMZ,” Moyer says. “It’s a treasure trove for me to see who has problems with bodyguards or who got arrested.” Such news is great for client leads. Moyer also thinks the site’s highly organized squad of photographers can be a good training scenario for protection drills. “You can look at paparazzi as a threat, even though they’re not, and think about how you’d navigate it.” Plus, having cameras at a location before a celebrity shows up can sometimes highlight information leaks in their operation: If photographers have advance notice, Moyer says, then security needs to be tightened up.

5. THEY DON’T LIVE THE LIFE YOU THINK THEY DO.

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Because guards are often seen within arm’s reach of a celebrity, some think they must be having the same experiences. Not so. “A big misconception is that we’re living the same life as celebrities do,” Kalaydjian says. “Yes, we’re on a private jet sometimes, but we’re not enjoying the amenities. We might live in their house, but we’re not enjoying their pool. You stay to yourself, make your rounds.” Guards that get wrapped up in a fast-paced lifestyle don’t tend to last long, he says.

6. SOMETIMES THEY’RE JUST THERE FOR SHOW.

For some, being surrounded by a squad of serious-looking people isn’t a matter of necessity. It’s a measure of status on the level of an expensive watch or a fast car. Firms will sometimes get calls from people looking for a way to get noticed by hiring a fleet of guards when there's no threat involved. “It’s a luxury amenity,” Schissel says. “It’s more of a ‘Look at me, look at them’ thing,” agrees Moyer. “There’s no actual threat. It’s about the show. I turn those down. We do real protection.”

7. THEY CAN MAKE THEIR CLIENT'S DAY MORE EFFICIENT.

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Because guards will scope out destinations in advance, they often know exactly how to enter and exit locations without fumbling for directions or dealing with site security. That’s why, according to Moyer, CEOs and celebrities can actually get more done during a work day. “If I’m taking you to Warner Bros., I know which gate to go in, I’ve got credentials ahead of time, and I know where the bathrooms are.” Doing more in a day means more money—which means a return on the security investment.

8. “BUDDYGUARDS” ARE A PROBLEM.

When evaluating whether or not to take on a new employee, Kalaydjian weeds out anyone looking to share in a client’s fame. “I’ve seen guys doing things they shouldn’t,” he says. “They’re doing it to be seen.” Bodyguards posting pictures of themselves with clients on social media is a career-killer: No one in the industry will take a “buddyguard” seriously. Kalaydjian recalls the one time he smirked during a 12-year-stint guarding the same client, something so rare his employer commented on it. “It’s just not the side you portray on duty.”

9. SOCIAL MEDIA MAKES THEIR JOB HARDER.

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High-profile celebrities maintain their visibility by engaging their social media users, which often means posting about their travels and events. For fans, it can provide an interesting perspective into their routine. For someone wishing them harm, it’s a road map. “Sometimes they won’t even tell me, and I’ll see on Snapchat they’ll be at a mall at 2 p.m.,” Kalaydjian says. “I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”

10. NOT EVERY CELEBRITY IS PAYING FOR THEIR OWN PROTECTION.

The next time you see a performer surrounded by looming personal protection staff, don’t assume he or she is footing the bill. “A lot of celebrities can’t afford full-time protection,” Moyer says, referring to the around-the-clock supervision his agency and others provide. “Sometimes, it’s the movie or TV show they’re doing that’s paying for it. Once the show is over, they no longer have it, or start getting the minimum.”

11. THEY DON’T LIKE BEING CALLED “BODYGUARDS.”

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Few bodyguards will actually refer to themselves as bodyguards. Moyer prefers executive protection agents, because, he says, bodyguard tends to carry a negative connotation of big, unskilled men. “There is a big group of dysfunctional people with no formal training who should not be in the industry,” he says. Sometimes, a former childhood friend can become “security,” a role they’re not likely to be qualified for. Moyer and other firms have specialized training courses, with Moyer's taking cues from Secret Service protocols. But Moyer also cautions that agencies enlisting hyper-driven combat specialists like Navy SEALs or SWAT team members aren't the answer, either. “SEALs like to engage and fight, destroying the bad guy. Our goal is, we don’t want to be in the same room as the bad guy.”

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9 Wild Moments from Winter Olympics History
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With the Pyeongchang Olympics nearing their final weekend in South Korea, we thought we'd take a look back at some of the wildest and most unpredictable moments of Winter Games past.

1. AUSTRALIA WINS ITS FIRST WINTER GOLD MEDAL WHEN SPEED SKATER WAITS FOR HIS COMPETITORS TO FALL DOWN

Knowing he was overmatched by his fellow athletes during the 1000 Meter Short Track Speed Skating competition at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Australian Steven Bradbury devised a strategy of waiting in the back of the pack on the off chance that his competitors might trip up. Amazingly, the strategy worked when a disqualification in the quarterfinals got him through to the semis and a crash sent him to the finals.

In the final, favorite Apollo Anton Ohno and the three other competing skaters collided in an epic crash; the trailing Bradbury was close enough to the pack to cross the finish line before any of the fallen skaters, becoming Australia's first gold medalist in the Winter Olympics.

2. ALPINE SKIER HERMANN MAIER FLIES OFF THE COURSE AT 70 MPH, GETS UP AND WALKS AWAY

In downhill alpine skiing, skiers travel at extremely high velocities (typically 60 to 85 miles per hour) down courses that closely follow the mountain's fall line.

In 1998, Nagano Olympics race officials were worried about the downhill course—specifically, a steep angle between the 6th and 7th gates. They altered this portion but the section still posed a danger.

Austrian Hermann Maier finished first in the World Cup standings before the Olympics but had a reputation for recklessness within the skiing circuit—in fact, according to Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, “caution was not a word in Maier's vocabulary." Maier didn't slow down before the aforementioned dangerous turn in Nagano and went flying off the course at 70 miles per hour, tumbling to a halt some 50 meters away. In a sport where injuries—and even deaths—aren't unheard of, Maier shocked TV audiences by getting up and walking away with nothing more than a bruised shoulder.

Benefiting from a 24-hour weather delay on his next event, the Super-G, Maier used the extra rest to get back in full form and took home the gold. He also came in first in the Giant Slalom three days later.

3. WOMEN CHEAT BY HEATING UP THEIR SLEDS


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There have been a limited number of cases of cheating in the Winter Olympics (far fewer than in the Summer Olympics), but that doesn't mean it’s an impossibility. Just ask Ortrun Enderlein.

Enderlein, the defending luge champion, and her two East German teammates aroused suspicion by showing up just before their runs and leaving the scene hastily after. Enderlein won gold and her teammates placed 3rd and 4th, but upon closer inspection, it was discovered that their sleds had been heated immediately before the races, which reduced friction with the ice and resulted in faster times. The three were disqualified and the East German Olympic Committee blamed the affair on a "capitalist revanchist plot.”

4. SKI JUMPER RALLIES NATIONAL PRIDE BY FINISHING LAST

English plasterer Michael Edwards traveled to Lake Placid, New York two years before the 1988 Calgary Olympics to fulfill his dream of making the event as a downhill skier. When money ran short, he decided to switch to ski jumping because it was significantly cheaper and there would be no competition at the national trials. Edwards became the first Olympic ski jumper in British history, but was far below the standards of the rest of the field.

Edwards crashed at the World Championships the year before the '88 Games and was ridiculed by the international press, who dubbed him “Mr. Magoo” due to his thick-rimmed glasses and heavy frame.

To the British, however, Edwards became a great source of fascination, which turned into a full-fledged national craze as he became the first Olympic ski jumper in the country's history and successfully landed his attempt at the Calgary Games. Although he didn't even score half the total points of any other competitor, he earned admiration worldwide and was given the nickname "Eddie the Eagle" by the President of the International Olympic Committee during the closing ceremony.

Sadly, many others in the Olympic community did not take him seriously, and they raised the qualifying standards to prevent Edwards from participating in the future. This didn't stop him from trying, but he failed to qualify on three successive occasions. Today, Edwards still plasters for a living and estimates that 70 percent of his income comes from speaking engagements.

In 2016, Eddie the Eagle, a biopic about Edwards’s life featuring Hugh Jackman (not playing Edwards), was released in theaters.

5. GOLD MEDALIST IN OLYMPICS' INAUGURAL SNOWBOARDING COMPETITION GETS BUSTED FOR MARIJUANA

At the 1998 Nagano Games, snowboarding was introduced in an effort to make the Olympics more appealing to a younger audience. Still, there was some trepidation about the perceived rambunctious lifestyle of the snowboarding community and how it would fit in with the formality of the Olympics.

Nothing better illustrated this clash of values than when Canadian Ross Rebagliati became the inaugural winner in the Parallel Giant Slalom and was promptly stripped of his medal three days after the event for testing positive for marijuana.

Rebagliati claimed to have ingested it second-hand at a party and the Canadian Olympic delegation successfully appealed the IOC's decision on the basis that marijuana isn't a performance-enhancing drug. He got his medal back before the Games ended.

Today, 20 years after the controversy, Rebagliati has moved on from his snowboarding past and is trying his hand at entrepreneurism: he’s the founder of Ross’ Gold, a cannabis business.

6. NANCY KERRIGAN VS. TONYA HARDING


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Tonya Harding was an ice skating prodigy from a broken home who ascended to the world stage in the early '90s. As her financial security and world ranking started to decline in the months leading up to the Olympics, Harding became frustrated and directed her anger at fellow American Nancy Kerrigan, who was ascending in the world standings and landing lucrative commercial endorsements.

Harding's on-again-off-again husband Jeff Gillooly conspired with two other men to attack and injure Kerrigan before the 1994 Olympics. They carried out the hit after Kerrigan's practice skate before the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit. Shane Stant, Gillooly's hired man, hit Kerrigan on the knee with a police baton as she was talking to a reporter in a stadium hallway. He escaped by diving through a plexiglass door before running to a getaway car.

The attack resulted in a bruise, but because there was no bone or ligament damage, Kerrigan was able to perform and was selected (along with Harding, who was under investigation for the attack) for the U.S. Olympic team. At the Lillehammer Games, Kerrigan famously skated to a silver medal after terrific back-to-back performances while Harding, disgraced, finished in eighth place. Harding's life, and the scandal surrounding her competition with Kerrigan, has been turned into the Oscar-nominated film, I, Tonya.

According to Olympic Historian David Wallechinsky, when CBS executives thanked their staff in Norway for the great ratings (the figure skating finals were the one of the most watched events in television history at the time), a CBS employee wrote back: "Don't thank us. Thank Tonya."

7. TWO AMERICAN HOCKEY TEAMS ARE SENT TO THE OLYMPICS, BOTH ARE DISQUALIFIED


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Controversy erupted before the 1948 Olympic Games in St. Moritz over whether the American Hockey Association or the Amateur Athletic Union was the chief governing authority for hockey in the United States. American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage refused to sanction the AHA because of their commercial sponsorships, but the International Ice Hockey Federation officially ruled that the AAU was to be replaced by the AHA.

Amid the confusion, both teams made their way to St. Moritz to compete. Before they were set to march in the Opening Ceremony, the Swiss Olympic Organizing Committee banned the AAU. Because they were favored by Brundage, though, the AAU team got the honor of representing the U.S. in the opening ceremony, while the AHA team—which was actually allowed to compete by the organizing committee—had to sit in the stands.

8. LUGE TRACK WITH A HISTORY OF FATAL ACCIDENTS SELECTED AS SITE OF INAUGURAL LUGE COMPETITION


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Luge racers regularly hit speeds of over 95 miles per hour, meaning that even the smallest shift in body position can easily result in catastrophe. This was evident before the 2010 Vancouver Games, when Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili careened off the track during a training run and died of his injuries.

It was an eerie replay of the luge's first-ever appearance at the Olympic Games. Two weeks before the Innsbruck Games in 1964, Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki, a British RAF pilot who was inexperienced in the sport, flew off the track and died during a training run. Additionally, a German doubles luge team was injured on the track in a separate accident. The track had had several fatal accidents when it opened decades before, and although it was modified thereafter, Olympic participants had to lobby for further safety precautions to reduce some of the danger.

9. FRENCH JUDGE CONFESSES TO THROWING THE COMPETITION


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The pairs figure skating competition at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics resulted in a massive scandal that gave wind to the long-standing notion that figure skating judges can be swayed. Russian competitors Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze made noticeable errors in their long program, while Canadians Jamie Salé and David Pelletier performed a flawless routine that had the crowd chanting "Six! Six! Six!"

When the judges ruled 5-4 in favor of the Russians and loud boos rang from the arena, the Canadian Olympic officials filed a protest. Protests filed by the losing party have become relatively common in the Olympics and the exercise is often a symbolic and ultimately fruitless gesture. But in this case, some dirt actually turned up.

In the subsequent investigation, it was revealed that the swing vote, French judge Marie-Rene Le Gougne, was up for a seat on the International Skating Union's powerful technical committee, and reports surfaced that she confided to a British referee a few days earlier that she had been pressured by her own national committee to throw her vote for the Russian pairs.

Le Gougne changed her story a few days later in an effort to save face, but her contradictory statements only exacerbated the coverage into a full-blown media frenzy dubbed “skate-gate.” In the end, Le Gougne was suspended for three years, the Canadians were awarded a second pair of gold medals, and the sport underwent reform with judges' scores being kept secret and chosen at random.

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