These are even cooler than the ones you see on TV!
In 1932, Bruno Hauptmann propped a homemade ladder against Charles Lindbergh’s house, climbed up to one of the bedroom windows, and snatched the aviator’s 20-month-old son. When Hauptmann was brought to court, forensic botany helped lock him away. Arthur Koehler, a wood technologist, discovered that one of the ladder rails had formerly been part of a floor. He later matched the tree rings on that ladder with a missing floorboard in Hauptmann’s attic. Since then, botanists have used pollen (which clings to clothes and hair) to link suspects to crime scenes, soil and plant samples to determine when unmarked graves were dug, and algae blooms to identify where drowning victims died. So avoid committing crimes in front of your ficus. It’s a snitch.
From pronunciations and misspellings to overused words, the language patterns you demonstrate while communicating are as distinct as the sound of your voice. That makes them an important piece of evidence in a criminal investigation. Though forensic linguistics emerged in the late 1960s, it didn’t become popular in the United States until the mid-1990s, when FBI linguist James Fitzgerald was hunting for the Unabomber, who had killed three people and injured two dozen by mailing homemade bombs. Fitzgerald believed publishing the bomber’s “manifesto” would help catch the criminal—and it worked. Several people, including his brother and sister-in-law, recognized the writing style and called in. Soon Ted Kaczynski was in handcuffs.
Some investigators carry guns, while others wield calculators. After all, when the FBI was founded in 1908, 12 of its 34 original investigators were bank examiners. Today about 15 percent of the FBI’s special agents are accountants, and thousands are scattered across government agencies and police departments around the country. Why so many number crunchers? Because most crimes revolve around one motive: money. Forensic accountants work on various cases, including money laundering, securities fraud, insurance claims, and embezzlement. They commonly search for cash in hidden accounts, once memorably exposing that O. J. Simpson —who’d claimed he was too poor to handle a civil suit in 1997— actually possessed millions. Accountants even helped throw Al Capone in the slammer. His crime? Tax evasion.
The celestial bodies (mostly the moon and sun) have had their day in court for decades. When Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer, he successfully defended a client against murder charges by establishing the position of the moon on the night of the crime (disproving the testimony of the prosecution’s key witness). But most forensic astronomers work for museums, not lawyers. Some, like Donald Olson of Texas State University, help art historians determine when paintings of nature scenes were made. Comparing details in the artwork with historical weather and star data, Olson has pinned years onto works from artists as diverse as Monet and Ansel Adams. His sleuthing even confirmed the legend that Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein by a moonbeam. (It was a bright gibbous, in case you were wondering.)
Diagnosing astigmatism and glaucoma is all in a day’s work for an optometrist. Catching a murderer? Not so much. But when criminals forget their spectacles at the crime scene, your average eye doctor has the chance to be a hero. That’s what Graham Strong did for two decades. Now retired, Strong began working as a forensic optometrist in 1989 after investigators found glasses under the body of a murder victim. When detectives found a suspect wearing similar shades in an old mug shot, they asked Strong to confirm that they were a match. “I obtained more than 20 measurements that enabled me to conclude that the glasses found at the scene were identical to those in photographs,” he says, and the evidence resulted in a first-degree murder conviction. Even the smallest shard of a broken lens can reveal someone’s prescription—and identity.
The above article by Jennifer M. Wood is reprinted with permission from the November 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine.