Author Archives: micol

Wonderful Things: Crime light

Looking back over the centuries, how many crimes committed back then would have reached a different conclusion if they occurred today with the use of modern science and technology?

 Advances in Forensic Science means that crime-scene evidence can be accurately gathered and examined, from collecting DNA and fingerprints to gunpowder residue from armed robbery, kidnap and murder.

 DNA profiling is a powerful tool in identifying a killer. Present in every cell, it identifies you and only you and it is what’s usually left behind at a crime scene.

 The Metropolitan Police estimate that they examine over 11,000 crime scenes each month and here in Who Am I? gallery, you will be able to take a look at a display of a real-life case that they needed to solve. The equipment that you will see was used by a team of forensic scientists who worked with the Metropolitan Police to solve the crime, using the latest DNA profiling technology and forensic science techniques, in particular a light source examination of the scene and objects.

 One of the items on display in this case is a crime light which was used at the scene and in the lab to detect body fluids. This LED forensic light source called Crime-lite uses filters of different colours along with viewing goggles to reveal blood splatters and fingerprint evidence otherwise difficult to detect just by looking. Providing intense, even and shadow free illumination for locating evidence, Crime-lite uses a white light for general search and seven narrow band wavelengths in UV, violet, blue, blue-green, green, orange, and red.

Crime-Lite- A Forensic's handiest tool?

Take a look at how a real forensic scientist from the Metropolitan Police North-West fingerprint lab uses this technology to detect and enhance hidden marks on a knife from a GBH incident.

  • Can you think of any infamous crimes that would’ve benefitted from a ‘Crime-lite’ or DNA profiling to solve the case?
  • Can we rely on evidence collected in this way? Is it always 100% accurate?
  • What could contaminate evidence? What preventative causes do you think police officers on the scene of a crime take to make sure they don’t disturb any evidence?

 Fancy letting your students having a go to see if they can solve a crime? Our KS3 Crime Lab kit contains three activities that covers scientific techniques related to identity and can also be used to solve our crime story about an attempted robbery at the ScienceMuseum.

To learn more about how DNA evidence can help us solve crimes, visit the Who am I? gallery on the first floor of the Wellcome Wing.

-Denise Cook

Sceptics, change your tune

No, this isn’t about the Olympics… I’m sure you’ve all heard so much about Olympic fever (you may even be deep in the grips of it), so we’re going to give you a break from it for a minute.

This is about climate change (and we’ve heard so much about that too!). That the climate has been changing is almost universally accepted inside and outside scientific circles- but that the fluctuation is actually due to human activity has been a matter of debate for some scientists.  Now a groundbreaking study has given powerful indications that the 1.5C rise in temperature over the past 250 years is due to our busy work on the planet- and has even turned some sceptics!

So what is different about this study compared to all the others? First of all, it analysed data as far back as 1753 (previous datasets only collected from mid-1800s), and instead of having a human organize the data, it was done entirely by a computer (eliminating the criticism that scientists would apply their own bias to the data). The research plotted the upward temperature curve against suspected ‘forcings’ to analyse their warming impact- for example solar activity, or volcanoes. It turned out the best match was for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels- which as we all know have been on the rise, linked to our use of fossil fuels and the ice caps melting.

Our addiction to fossil fuels is getting us in hot water

Our addiction to fossil fuels is getting us in hot water

Interestingly, the results of the data analysis were all released before this paper was even published- another move aimed at appeasing the climate sceptics! So whilst some continue to be vocal about their dissent, others including Prof Richard Muller (who started the whole project!) have changed their tune: “We were not expecting this, but as scientists, it is our duty to let the evidence change our minds.”

That’s really powerful, because we don’t always think of scientists having an agenda, but they do- just like any other people they have beliefs and theories about the way the world works. But if we are to get closer to understanding the way it really does work, we must be open to changing or refining those ideas if new evidence arises.

Luckily we aren’t the only ones who say this! Einstein said ” The important thing is not to stop questioning…” and that is one of the most important skills for your students to pick up, not just scientifically but applicable to all walks of life.

We like to model this for teachers and students using Mystery Boxes - try it out as an icebreaker, and to teach How Science Works in a fun, hands-on way.

Wonderful Things: Henry Molaison’s brain

When you think of the world’s most famous brain, whose comes to mind?

 Freud’s? Einstein’s? Marie Curie’s perhaps?

True, all these had quite a lot to offer in the grey matter department, but when it comes to offering the world a clearer picture of the human brain and providing vital insights into the formation and storage of memories, the prize goes to a man by the name of Henry Molaison.

In 1935, 9 year old Henry got in an accident with a cyclist in his home town of Hartford, Connecticut; he hit his head and later developed intractable epilepsy. In 1953 at the age of 27, in an attempt to correct his seizures, he was referred to William Beecher Scoville, a neurosurgeon at Hartford Hospital, for treatment. At that time, neuroscience was quite rudimentary and the procedure carried out on Henry was unprecedented. Scoville removed both temporal lobes of his cerebral cortex and a sea-horse shaped structure called the hippocampus. That’s quite a lot of brain tissue gone.

Brain model- green sections indicate the Temporal lobes removed by Scoville

The operation succeed in dissipating his seizures, but unfortunately he emerged unable to form new memories. They had removed a part of his brain that was responsible for storing short term memories! Neurologists refer to this state as profound amnesia.

He lived the rest of his life this way, remembering events that occurred before his operation and unable to form new ones after it. He knew  his mother was Irish and also about World War 2, recalling almost nothing after that. Luckily for the world of neuroscience, Henry wanted to help people and gave himself to neurological research for the rest of his life until his death in 2008.

Before Henry Molaison (or Patient HM as he is often known to psychology and neuroscience students), memory was an abstract idea, now, thanks to Henry and his brain, we can see where long and short term memory areas are formed in the brain.

Section of HM's brain indicating where tissue was removed

Had Henry not being so willing to help science to better understand the human brain, many people may not have received the treatment they needed to help with their conditions.

How do you feel about donating your body to Science?

Can you think of any reason that would prevent people from doing so?

 Would you donate your pet’s body to science?

If you would like to see and hear elements of this fascinating story, visit the Who Am I gallery on the first floor in the Wellcome wing of the museum.

-James Carmody

Wonderful Things: Water testing kit

The leading UK charity Oxfam is currently running its biggest ever emergency appeal for Africa. The failure of the late 2010 rains has meant that more than 10 million people from the Horn and East Africa are in desperate need of food and clean water. Since the late 19th Century, we have been all too aware of the risks of consuming dirty water, but for these people in the affected areas of Africa, contaminated water is sometimes the only option. Unfortunately, a dreadful consequence of this is that many people are now suffering from water-borne diseases such as Cholera.

Cholera is caused by the ingestion of bacterium Vibrio cholerae present in faecally contaminated water and is characterised by the onset of acute watery-diarrhoea; leading to death by de-hydration. However, Oxfam is working to stop the spread of water-borne diseases by treating the water that is used for drinking, cooking and washing.

However, how do we know what’s in the water before we learn that it’s contaminated? Take a look at this piece of kit below:

This water testing kit could have saved thousands of lives

This water testing kit could have saved thousands of lives

This is water testing apparatus; used between 1865 and 1900. During this period, many cities including London were in the grasp of deadly water-borne diseases, including cholera. This object tested for the presence of organic matter and chemical pollutants in water; thereby being a useful tool in the prevention of disease.

This kit came less than a decade after John Snow first argued that cholera was a water-borne disease. Before this time, the medical profession preferred the idea of germ theory, championed by Louis Pasteur who argued that diseases were spread by noxious ‘bad air’.  Fortunately, we now know differently and this knowledge is going some way to educate people and purify drinking water. In fact, Robert Reed at the University of Northumbria and Isaac Bright Singh at Cochin University in Kerala, India, are collaborating on a research project exploring the possibility of using sunlight to decontaminate water. Could this be a cheap and limitless way of protecting people from water-borne diseases?

If access to clean drinking water is a human right, should everyone be responsible for helping people in developing nations get ahold of it? 

Get your students to work out how much water they use on an average day. How could they cut down?

Visit the Water Wars feature in the Antenna gallery to find out about the water footprint of our food.

-Denise Cook