How Much Do You Know About Forensic Science?

SCIENCE

Torrance Grey

6 Min Quiz

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About This Quiz

Forensic science -- or "forensics" for short -- has fascinated fiction writers since, at least, the time of Arthur Conan Doyle, when the 19th-century doctor-turned-writer had his protagonist, Sherlock Holmes, use forensic methods to solve crimes. But how much of what you've seen on the screen is realistic?

Forensics has become even more popular in recent decades, giving us the novels of Patricia Cornwell and television shows like "CSI." However, real-life forensic scientists (FYI, they hate being called "techs"!) say that these TV shows greatly exaggerate the ease and speed with which they do their work (and, probably, the drama of their love lives!)

Although real-life forensic science isn't nearly as sexy as TV and the movies makes it appear, it's also a much broader field than you might realize. It involves a lot more than fingerprints and DNA analysis (to name that two best-known sub-disciplines). Branches of forensic science include handwriting and document analysis, examination of video recordings or digital/computer evidence, and toxicology (the study of drugs and poisons). There's an entire branch dedicated to blood spatter alone!

Whether you're a fan of "CSI"-style TV shows and movies, or you once considered pursuing a branch of criminalistics as a career, we've got a quiz to challenge you. Do you know what kind of technician would study "metadata"? Or in what kind of crime scene you'd find a "void area"? Duck under the yellow tape and put your knowledge to the test!

Blood typing was an early form of forensic science. How many human blood types are there?

Humans can have type A, B, AB or O blood. The blood types are further divided up by what sort of antigens the cells carry -- a subject too complex to go into here.

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Which of these prefixes means "relating to blood"?

The prefix "hema-" comes from the Greek word "haima," meaning "blood." You'll see it in names of certain tests run on blood.

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Which of these is not an important figure in early forensic science?

Bertillon, Herschel and Galton made contributions to anthropometry (body measuring) or fingerprinting in the 19th century. Arthur Conan Doyle was a writer who created Sherlock Holmes, the fictitious character who sometimes used early versions of forensics. However, that doesn't actually qualify as a contribution to the field!

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Modern DNA analysis, known as the PCR-STR process, has been around since the _______.

The PCR-STR process was developed by eccentric scientist Kary Mullis. He credited LSD with helping open his mind to new ways of thinking about science. (Disclaimer: He has since become an AIDS denialist, a climate-change denialist and has reported seeing an alien in the guise of a glowing green raccoon.)

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What part of the body do investigators commonly swab to get a DNA sample?

The cheek is easy to access, yet protected from most forms of transfer DNA. An exception might be in the subject has recently been kissing, in which case the other person's cells might have transferred to the subject's mouth (as seen, for example, in the movie "Gattaca."

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After death, the human body takes on a stiffness called what?

"Rigor mortis" is Latin for "stiffness of death." Bodies do not remain rigid; the condition peaks about 12 hours after death and then the muscles slowly begin to relax again.

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When a suspect is not available in person, what might be tested for DNA instead?

Most people don't share toothbrushes, making them a good source of cellular material. The other objects named above are too readily touched or handled by other persons.

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Which of these cells does not contain DNA?

This is a bit of a trick question. Urine is sterile, and does not in itself contain DNA. But urine can carry skin cells from the lining of the bladder, so it's possible to get DNA from urine in that way.

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Which of these is a NOT a field within forensic science?

Almost anything can be "forensic," in the dictionary definition of "detailed and minute analysis." But criminal forensic science, as we define it today, doesn't include IQ testing -- that would be done by a psychologist.

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Which of the following do identical twins NOT share?

Fingerprints are unique, even to identical twins. But both kinds of DNA, autosomal and mitochondrial, are shared by twins. As, of course, is blood type.

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A test result that is not certain enough to be useful to an investigation is called _______.

A forensic scientist should never be afraid to admit a result is inconclusive. Often, a person's freedom hangs in the balance; the evidence can't be forced to fit a desired outcome.

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After death, blood pools at the lowest points of the body. What is this called?

Livor mortis presents as a bluish color in the lowest points of the body (the back, if the corpse is on its back; the front, if it's on its stomach, and so on). If a body has these patches at higher points, it indicates the body has been moved post-mortem.

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Fingerprints that are not visible to the naked eye are called _____ prints.

Most fingerprints at a crime scene are latent. That why technicians dust for them -- the dust makes them visible, then transferable to a surface for later analysis.

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Probably the best-known detector of bloodstains not visible to the eye is a substance called ________.

Luminol is a substance that reacts with the iron in hemoglobin. It glows when exposed to that iron, hence its name.

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True or false: DNA testing can't determine whether someone is a parent or sibling of an individual involved in a crime.

DNA testing is capable of determining family relationships, in which DNA is not identical, but has more points of similarity than that of a stranger. If this were not true, DNA testing couldn't be used to determine the father of a baby.

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In addition to fingerprints, which of these can be used to identify a person?

It's a misconception that only fingerprints have identified suspects. Given adequate imprinting on surfaces, other parts of the body can be used as well.

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What might a "void area" tell a specialist in blood spatter?

A void area appears where an object at close range intercepts spurting blood, which can be seen on either side of the void. Often, this object is the killer's body itself. Put more bluntly, if someone slashes another person's throat, there'll be a void area on the wall behind them from where the blood spattered onto the killer's own upper body.

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DNA derived only from the mother is called _______ DNA.

The significance of mitochondrial DNA is that it survives much longer than nuclear DNA (which comes from the nucleus of the cell). Mitochondrial DNA has been used in cold cases like that of Jack the Ripper (though without definitive results).

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What is a "control sample?"

A "control sample" is like the control in a science experiment: It's the known factor. So if a person is missing, and there's blood at their home, police might take a DNA sample from a full-blood sibling as a "control sample." If the DNA from the blood at the scene is a near-match for that of the sibling, that's conclusive: It's almost certainly the missing person's blood at the scene.

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Investigators study "lands and grooves" in what branch of forensics?

Handguns and rifles have "rifling" in the barrel, a spiral pattern that makes the bullet spin, and thus keep a straighter trajectory. The rifling leaves "grooves" (scraped-away areas) on the slug; "lands" are the unmarked the metal between the grooves. This is how investigators can sometimes match up a slug to the gun that fired it.

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"Bertillonage" was a system of identifying suspects by measuring their ________.

Alphonse Bertillon created this system of taking about 20 body measurements to create a nearly unique profile of an offender. It became obsolete with the rise of fingerprinting.

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What is the "chain of custody"?

After an piece of evidence -- let's say, a shell casing -- is collected at the scene, documentation is kept of who had it at every point, all the way through to trial. This decreases the chances that someone could tamper with it and not get caught.

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Why doesn't it help criminals to damage/scar their fingertips in order not to leave identifiable fingerprints?

Certainly, criminals have thought of this. It doesn't usually work. Much better to wear gloves (though that won't prevent other types of evidence, like hairs and fibers, from being left at the scene).

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Which of these is not a characteristic of a fingerprint?

There are three basic formations in the ridges of a fingerpint: arches, loops and whorls. A "moue" is a petulant expression made with the mouth -- you'll recognize this term if you read vintage novels.

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An "exemplar" would be requested by an expert in what?

A handwriting sample is called an "exemplar." When blood or DNA is in question, the forensic scientist would ask for a "sample" or "specimen" instead.

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Pieces of evidence that are tiny, or almost microscopic, are called _____ evidence.

Trace evidence can include hairs, fibers, bits of soil and more. How much trace evidence is collected at a scene depends on how thoroughly investigators can go over a scene -- which is, in turn, dictated by departmental resources. Most jurisdictions can't afford to send a battery of technicians to swarm over every crime scene.

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From whom would "elimination fingerprints" be taken?

Police officers and other investigators usually have fingerprints on file, in case they leave some at a crime scene. Likewise, other people living in a house where a crime took place might be fingerprinted. With these people ruled out, an unknown fingerprint is likely to be that of the criminal.

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What is "transient evidence"?

A fingerprint made in water-soluble paint is transient evidence at a rainy crime scene. Direct sunlight, intense heat or intense cold can also threaten the "half life" of evidence.

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What is "CSI effect"?

"CSI effect" is the increasing tendency of average jurors to expect sophisticated forensics in every case, and to assume that forensic evidence is always 100 percent reliable. Defense attorneys want potential jurors to understand that cases don't hang on forensics alone -- motive still needs to be established, eyewitness testimony heard and so on.

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The mixing up of other material (genetic, biological or otherwise) with an evidence sample is called _______.

Contamination occurs when evidence isn't treated with proper respect -- for example, if a technician were to handle it with bare hands, getting skin cells or fingerprints on it. It's only tampering if it's deliberate.

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Which of these can undermine the reliability/value of forensic evidence?

Jurors increasingly believe that forensic evidence is infallible. But human error or deliberate tampering with evidence can bring about the wrong result. Limited resources come into play when agencies don't have the funds or personnel to collect enough evidence at a scene. Evidence can't be analyzed if it was never brought to the lab.

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In digital forensics, what is metadata?

A date stamp or timestamp on an email is an example of metadata. Overall, metadata is information that isn't part of a message or content, but tells experts in digital forensics where a message originated, and when and who might have sent it.

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The process in which bodies and other organic materials break down after death is called ________.

Everything organic decomposes, right down to leaves and grass. But the type of decomposition that interests forensic investigators -- specifically, forensic anthropologists -- is human body decomposition.

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Where is America's most famous "body farm" (where human decomposition in studied) located?

Patricia Cornwell made this research facility famous when she wrote about it, even naming the book, "The Body Farm," after it. Actually called the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, it has more than a thousand people pre-registered to donate their bodies to the "farm."

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Which of these branches of forensic science has become much more important in the last decade or so?

The number of blood stains, clothing fibers and handwriting samples that need examination has remained more or less steady in the last decade. But smartphones and similar technology have created an explosion of video evidence, requiring many more experts who can recover, analyze and authenticate video recordings.

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