Forensic scientists are cool, calculating, oddly attractive, and wear expensive sunglasses

Forensic scientists are cool, calculating, oddly attractive, and wear expensive sunglasses. And I want to be one. How do I know? Why, from watching Crime Scene Investigation of course - the granddaddy of all those television dramas (recently including Bones and Silent Witness) where hours of arduous lab work and forensic analysis lead to heartbreaking acquittals of cold-blooded killers due to insufficient evidence. 

In Jerry Bruckheimer’s ’gritty’ franchise CSI: Las Vegas, which now boasts two east coast spin-offs, my heroes make some truly fantastic deductions. One memorable episode followed a hapless drug addict who received an injection of iodine-131, which caused his flesh to melt away. It wasn’t just me whose interest was piqued by this one: sixteen million Americans receive this radioisotope treatment every year for thyroid cancer. Fortunately their dose is entirely safe, and given as a pill.  

Other deaths were explained by a decent lump of CO2 left to sublime by a hole in the wall - the apparent pressure gradient drew the gas through into the adjoining room where two students slumber and suffocate. Thumb through The Penguin Dictionary of Chemistry, randomly jabbing with a pen, and you’ll no doubt hit upon some plotlines of your own. 

This dodgy science has irked many an eagle-eyed chemist. But there’s one section of the show that causes me more melancholy than ire: the appearance of the DNA lab scientist. Now, this truly is what dreams are made of. 

The daily routine seems fairly straightforward. Following all good practice standards, I slap on a pair of latex surgical gloves with the traditional excess snap on each wrist. Having then gotten a coffee, sent a few emails, unbuttoned my lab coat, and run my hands through my hair in frustration a few times, I’m ready to handle delicate forensic evidence. As my budding CSI team enter, already prepared in gloves they were wearing at the crime scene, they sling a Q-tip with some earwax on it onto the bench.  

’We want a full DNA analysis.’ The request is reasonable; they clearly have murderer’s earwax here.  

’Certainly guys, would you like the overnight service, one hour, or the special thirty second montage?’ 

’Montage, thanks.’ And out they stride. 

Carefully dissolving a swab of the sample in the nearest solvent (it’s not like it makes a difference) I check the colour against the Dulux paint range. ’Garnet Symphony 2’ suggests careful testing over the course of a few weeks with collaboration from a national forensic lab. Sensing that time is of the essence, I instead choose to slam it in the MS-IR-UV-VIS-NMR-PixieDust 3000 DNA analyser. With time only for a few complicated-looking internal equipment shots, a convenient summary of the results is printed on one page, which night-shift supervisor Gil instantly snatches (gosh, he got here fast). 

’Of course,’ he notes to his colleagues, ’polyparaphenylene terephthalamide.’ They nod sagely. ’This, combined with the perfect fingerprint he left behind and the ’enhanced’ image from the CCTV, pins the crime on the guy we least expected. Who woulda thunk it?
I didn’t even need to extract any rare insects from the body this week. Thanks Jon!’  

And off they speed to testify in court, or conduct an autopsy, or one of the other hundreds of things these superhumans are qualified to do. Me, I just bask in the happy glow of having helped solve a murder in just less than 45 minutes. 

Jonathan Edwards