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Frances G. Lee and Alan R. Moritz, courtesy Countway Library of Medicine

Forensic Science Pioneer Frances Glessner Lee

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Frances G. Lee and Alan R. Moritz, courtesy Countway Library of Medicine

Frances Glessner Lee was born in 1878, the heiress to the International Harvester fortune. Although she was born in Chicago and grew up in the architecturally renowned Glessner Houseshe lived much of her later life in Littleton, New Hampshire.

Young Frances was educated at home with her brother, but despite having an interest in law and medicine, she was mostly taught the domestic arts. She wasn’t permitted to attend college when her brother continued on to Harvard, and instead, as was typical for a young woman of privilege at that time, she was officially presented to society at age 19. Just three months later, she was married off to attorney Blewett Lee, a distant relative of Robert E. Lee.

Her married life seems to have been unextraordinary. She produced three children with her husband, and seems to have basically lived the life expected of her. It wasn’t until she was middle-aged—her children grown and her husband having divorced her—that she gained the freedom to pursue her real passion: forensic science. She had first become interested in the subject through conversation with her brother’s Harvard classmate George Burgess Magrath, who eventually became a Harvard pathology professor and a medical examiner. She learned, through him, of the challenges faced by criminal investigators, of how the police and coroners were relatively untrained in death investigation and the preservation of evidence, leaving many murderers to go free.

In the 1930s, she also began spending her leisure time doing what would at first appear to be a very feminine and respectable hobby for a woman of her age and social standing—constructing dioramas of dollhouse miniatures. They were whimsical, tiny scenes, with people and furniture, in proper dollhouse scale.

A closer look, though, reveals that her little rooms depicted real crime scenes, complete with dead bodies, murder weapons, blood spatter, and every element of the aftermath of a killing. She studied the case files of real New England crimes for her constructions, and included all the clues necessary to solve each crime in her dreadful doll houses. Some of the dolls, for example, were designed to show effects of rigor mortis and lividity, from which time of death can be estimated. In one case, a tiny bullet is lodged in a rafter, for only the most eagle-eyed investigators to find.

She called her dioramas the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. She put so much intricate work, expense, and care into each one that she was only able to construct a few per year. Once, when she needed material for a pair of miniature pants on a figure, she wore an old suit around, even though it was out of fashion, so she could ensure the material was worn in to the proper, realistic degree. She even hand-knitted the socks for the figures, using knitting needles the size of pins.

As writer Laura J. Miller said of the subjects of the Nutshell Studies in a 2005 Harvard Magazine article, “Many display a tawdry, middle-class décor, or show the marginal spaces society’s disenfranchised might inhabit—seedy rooms, boarding houses—far from the surroundings of her own childhood. She disclosed the dark side of domesticity and its potentially deleterious effects: Many victims were women ‘led astray’ from the cocoon-like security of the home—by men, misfortune, or their own unchecked desires.”

It’s telling that most of the victims in her dollhouses of death are women, and that they are shown in their homes, with kitchens and babies, in the realms of domesticity that she herself may have chafed against. 

In the 1930s, once she came into her substantial International Harvester inheritance after her parents and her brother had passed away, she used some of her vast fortune to endow the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard. The purpose of the department was to help Massachusetts police use medical investigation to solve unexplained deaths, and to further the use of skilled medical investigators instead of “laymen coroners.” Glessner Lee also instituted a weeklong seminar on forensic science in partnership with Harvard University in 1945, which is still held every year. The Harvard Associates in Police Science training program also still uses the Nutshell Studies to provide instruction to cops, private investigators, medical examiners, and other professionals studying forensic investigation.

Her efforts to ensure quality training for death- and crime-scene investigators encouraged a move away from untrained coroners in many states in favor of highly trained medical examiners. In recognition of her achievements, in 1943, she was named State Police Captain of New Hampshire—the only woman in the country with the honor at the time.

Today there are 19 surviving Nutshell Studies, 18 of which are kept in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Maryland, where they are still used to teach. While not technically open to the public, private showings can sometimes be arranged.

Glessner Lee used the privilege afforded to her, in combination with the domestic activities and crafts expected of a society matron, to transcend the gender norms of her era and station. She is sometimes referred to as the "Mother of Forensic Science."

Her New York Times obituary from January 28, 1962 was headlined “Rich Widow Who Became Criminologist.” In it, she was quoted as saying: “Luckily, I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. It gives me the time and money to follow my hobby of scientific crime detection.”

All images courtesy Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner except where noted.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”