crime scene craziness

Jenlucpiquant1Last year, the Spousal Unit and I attended a friend's 40th birthday party here in Los Angeles. Among the many guests was one of the writers for Bones — one of my favorite current TV shows, as regular readers may know. We exchanged the usual pleasantries, I said how much I liked the show, and then he asked what I did for a living. As soon as I said "science writer," he tensed up, with a slightly panicked, hunted look in his eye, and launched into a litany of his supposed "sins against science": "I know, I know, we take liberties with the science, DNA testing can't be done in just a few hours, Angela's holographic system for recreating faces doesn't exist…." I quickly interrupted his impromptu "confessional" to assure him I wasn't one of those sorts who constantly feel compelled to nitpick science-themed fictional TV shows for –basically — not being science-themed documentaries.

Personally, I think it's quite telling, and more than a little sad, that this man's first reaction to encountering a science-oriented person (even one who admitted to being a Bones fan) was to recoil and start defending himself. I can only imagine how often he's encountered such individuals who dispensed with the usual pleasantries and simply attacked him for doing his job: producing a compelling, entertaining crime drama. It reflects quite poorly on scientists, frankly. Scientists mean well, but all the  judgmental finger-wagging gets pretty old, pretty darn fast. And soon, they're just not being heard because people have stopped listening. Who likes to be nagged and nitpicked all the time? Would it kill the scientific community to hand out a few kudos once in awhile, to offset the constant griping?

So in today's monster blog post, I come not to bury science-themed TV shows (death by nitpicking?) but to praise them — specifically, to praise Thursday night's new episode of C.S.I., or, as Jen-Luc Piquant has dubbed it, "the episode that launched a thousand Google searches." Maybe it was because of May Sweeps, or perhaps the whole writing staff got exposed to laughing gas that made them collectively giddy, but the episode ("The Theory of Everything") managed to cram together a record number of weird, stranger than fiction forensic oddities. (The writers of House are probably seething with envy; extremely rare and bizarre medical anomalies are their stock in trade.) And as I discovered when I Googled the relevant terms, they're all pretty solidly based on scientific fact. [SPOILER ALERT! The rest of this post gives away key plot points — solely in the interests of science — so if you didn't catch the episode, you might want to hold off reading further until you've checked it out: it's available on the CBS official Website.]

We get an inkling of the craziness to come in the opening sequence, set in the Vegas police station, where Detective Brass is questioning a suspect while, in the main room, a mentally disturbed homeless woman named Evelyn expounds on string theory and the coming alien invasion. We quickly discover that the suspect is in jail for killing a deer with a bolt from a cross bow and, um, putting a dress on it. He's recently divorced, drunk as a skunk (blood alcohol level of 2.8!), and suddenly makes a break for it, bolting through the station until he's cornered. The assembled officers use pepper spray to subdue him, but he's too smashed for it to have much effect. So Brass gives the order to tase him, using the unfortunate phrase, "Light him up." As if on cue, the suspect bursts into flames. Soon he joins the dead deer in the morgue for autopsy, and Brass is taking heat for having a suspect die in custody.

First, a brief word about tasers. I tend to think of them in terms of those smaller handheld electroshock devices, but the kind more commonly used by law enforcement — and depicted in the episode — are a bit more complicated. A taser fires two small darts (electrodes) connected to the main unit by conductive wire, with a maximum range of about 35 feet. The darts are pointed to penetrate clothing and touch the skin. Earlier models required them to pierce the skin, but today's version uses a "shaped pulse" that is more effective in penetrating clothing. The handheld devices are more commonly marketed to the general public these days. In fact, Jen-Luc Piquant was thrilled to discover a surprisingly large number of pretty pink tasers for women, from a standard issue model, to a taser disguised as a couple of pink tampons, to this adorable pink seal taser — and yes, it was made in Japan, along with the infamous Hello Kitty "personal massage wand." (Think I'm kidding? Think again!Pinkseal A Hello Kitty taser is practically inevitable.) Jen-Luc totally covets her own pink seal taser.

Anyway, tasers, or stun guns, are fairly controversial, since there have been several cases of suspects dying, ostensibly as a result of being tased — the most recent case was last year, involving a Polish immigrant in Canada who died after being tased by police in Vancouver's airport. That man didn't burst into flames, however. Combustion isn't typically one of the risks. Nick Stokes figures it has to be either the moonshine the man had been consuming, the pepper spray, or some chemical in the man's shirt, but a controlled experiment involving three Jell-O Men shows that none of those could account for the poor man's sudden immolation.

Eventually, Stokes discovers that there is more than one type of pepper spray. This is quite true. All types contain the same active ingredient: capsaicin, a chemical derived from the fruit of plants like chilis. But the episode is correct that the sort used by the police is water-based and hence non-flammable — precisely because of the growing use of tasers by police officers. Some consumer brands have alcohol-based propellants, however, which are highly flammable.

In the case of Burning Man, the officer at fault had used a consumer version after his girlfriend accidentally took his pepper spray with her to work. Nick repeats the experiment with the other type of pepper spray, and voila! The Jell-O Man bursts into flame. And yes, that was the Mythbusters looking on approvingly from behind the glass as Nick performs his final test — an uncredited cameo to keep obsessive fans happy. (Obsessive? Moi? Jen-Luc is the one who writes Mythbuster-themed slash fanfic. And if that doesn't take you to a scary mental place, I shudder to think what it would take to do so.)

Really, that's weird enough for one episode right there, but when  police finally track down the unfortunate Evelyn, she's dead, the victim of a collision with a semi. The truck driver was temporarily blinded by the sun reflecting off her tinfoil costume, and didn't even see her. The clincher: she's bleeding green blood — yes, just like Mr. Spock; perhaps she really was in touch with aliens. (Or not; certain species of lizards known as skinks also have green blood, along with some marine worms.) The whole green blood thing turns out to be a mini-epidemic: two more victims soon show up: another homeless man, dead from blunt force trauma to the head, and his killer: a pest control specialist named David Bohr, a.k.a. "Atomic Dave" (one of several cheeky nods to physics).

Bohr is alive when they find him, but not for long: he soon starts seizing and the same green blood, um, oozes out of his face. He joins the other victims in the county morgue, where we have the added twist of all his internal organs being various shades of green, including his brain. It turns out that all the green blood victims suffered from migraines and were taking massive doses of a medication without a prescription — supplied by Bohr the exterminator, who was taking the stuff himself in enormous quantities. Except Bohr thought he was suffering from migraines, when in fact, he had a massive brain tumor — hence the headaches, crazed behavior, and hemorrhaging. That's the danger of self-medication: what if your original diagnosis is wrong?

Hodges and Wendy (who is emerging as his unlikely love interest) conclude — along with Grissom — that the culprit is high levels of sulphur in the blood, caused by the large doses of migraine medication the victims had been taking. (The drug is identified as thiocyte, but this might be a fictional version — perhaps for legal reasons? — since the only Google hits that showed up on that drug name were related to this particular episode of C.S.I.) And naturally, they invoke Mr. Spock, although Wendy rightly reports that Spock's green blood, according to the series, arose from copper instead of iron in the hemoglobin. She knows a whole bunch else about Star Trek, as it happens, prompting Hodges to observe, "You're like a geeky nerdy guy trapped in a woman's body." Not to be outdone, Wendy zings back, "So are you."  Yeah, those two are made for each other….

This "Vulcan Blood" phenomenon isn't fictional. In fact, it's ripped right from last year's science headlines, when an article appeared in The Lancet describing a very odd case of a 42-year-old Canadian man (why are they always Canadian?) who appeared to have dark-green blood coursing through his arteries. The case was already a bit strange before the whole Vulcan-blood thing. The patient had fallen asleep in a chair for so long, and in such a position, as to severely restrict the blood flow to his limbs, resulting in localized tissue and nerve damage that required surgery to correct, before he lost his legs. The man also suffered from chronic migraines and had been prescribed sumatriptan to treat them. Apparently he'd been consuming a whopping 200 milligrams of the stuff per day, giving rise to a rare condition called sulfhaemoglobinaemia, in which high levels of sulphur wind up up in the oxygen-carrying compound hemoglobin, found in red blood cells. 

Meanwhile, Catherine Willows gets called to a nearby home where a 60-something couple has been found dead in their sleep. The husband was a physics professor, and they named their cat Schroedinger — except poor Schroedinger in this case isn't in a superposition of states, but very much dead and buried in the back yard, which is littered with the bodies of dead squirrels.

Initially, Willows surmises the exterminator's equipment — which employs electromagnetic pulses to chase away the squirrels — interfered with the couple's matching pacemakers, but lab tests definitively rule that out: the pulses were too weak to have any effect on the pacemakers' operation. It's a very real health risk, however: most Websites concerned with pacemakers warn those considering the surgery to avoid MRIs altogether afterward, and use with caution such devices as cell phones, iPods microwave ovens, metal detectors, industrial welders, and electrical generators.

A tox screen reveals that both the squirrels and the couple died of cyanide poisoning, the squirrels via ingested pellets, and the couple by inhaling a hydrogen cyanide gas. Victims of foul play? Yes for the squirrels; the jewelry-maker next door admitted to using cyanide in her electroplating (a common application for cyanide) and dosing the pesky squirrels (not to mention the unfortunate Schroedinger, by accident), but as for the elderly couple — not so much. Turns out the cyanide that killed them came from the old carpet — since overlaid with a new one — which contained polyvinyl chloride as a flame retardant. A fire broke out when a fleeing squirrel chewed through some electrical wiring, the old carpet kept things to a low smolder and the chemicals in the carpet fibers, when burnt, produced hydrogen cyanide gas. At least the couple died peacefully in their sleep.

All of the above is pretty scientifically accurate, give or take the occasional liberty for Purposes of the Plot — at least as far as I could tell from my hour of Googling. If one were going to nitpick on the cyanide front, one might note that Hodges is credited with the rare gift of being able to smell the bitter almond odor associated with hydrogen cyanide. It's true that not everyone can do so, but those that can't are in a minority (one out of four). Three out of four people can detect the telltale odor; if anything, it's surprising that Hodges is the only person in the Vegas lab who can do so. Then again, Hodges is known for exaggerating his gifts, so constantly proclaiming the uniqueness of his ability is entirely in keeping with his character.

Recapping the day, the C.S.I. team marvels at the unlikely string of coincidences that connected the various cases. First, a suspect goes up in flames while in police custody, and the last person he came into contact with — Tinfoil Evelyn — ends up dead and oozing weird green blood from migraine medication she'd copped from Atomic Dave, hired by the elderly couple to get rid of the squirrels. The late, great Immolated Deer-Killer turns out to be the ex-husband of the couple's next-door neighbor. The Deer Killer only ended up in police custody (and thus, dead) because he was so upset about the end of his relationship with the jewelry maker. Grissom says there's no such thing as coincidences and attributes the phenomenon to (wait for it!) string theory — thereby tying him to crazy Tinfoil Evelyn.

Okay, citing string theory as an explanation for a series of unlikely coincidences is stretching things very far indeed — in fact, unlikely coincidences do arise quite frequently, and they are rarely (if ever) evidence of anything more than that. But the brief layperson's sound-bite summation that Grissom gives of the essence of string theory is dead-on. The writers did their due diligence, even if they added their own fanciful metaphorical embellishment. And that's good enough for me.

9 thoughts on “crime scene craziness”

  1. Jen-Luc Piquant wouldn’t let me; you’re her hero. 🙂 But honestly, I wasn’t thinking of YOU, specifically. I think the effect is cumulative, not individual. I just found it very telling that the poor guy’s first reaction was “Oh, great, another science sort who’ll spend the next 15 minutes telling me everything we ‘got wrong’ in the show.” Doesn’t reflect well on science when we’re known only for that. I’m just sayin’. 🙂

  2. I was impressed by Grissom’s summary of String Theory. As he started talking about it I thought to myself, “Oh no, here we go…” But it was almost taken straight from The Elegant Universe, in fact I think he used a similar metaphor to Greene (can’t remember which one though). Did you catch the other scientist name? The burning guy was named Planck. I think there might have been another, but can’t remember it.

  3. Yes, the science for the different parts was quite well researched.
    I only have a problem with the HCN (cyanide) from the carpet. – Where should it come from? – The PVC gives you hydrogen chloride. Also not nice, but you won’t die from the small fire.

  4. Jen, the other name was Bohr – the exterminator guy himself. Physics nerds squeal in joy.
    Did you know that, in the bios of the characters, that Sara was supposed to have a degree in theoretical physics? Now I have another reason to miss having her on the show.

  5. There are more strings, too, under the surface. One of the exec producers is a friend of mine, and he has a PhD in applied physics, once wrote an episode of “The Outer Limits” that did a similar “let’s use physics names and terms” in an episode using the many worlds interpretation of QM, and used to write for Star Trek (albeit TNG, not TOS). It’s all tied together.

  6. Scientists are trained to look at all the little details and critique how they are used to make up the whole. To be accepted into a PhD program I had to, among other thing, read a journal article and present a reasoned argument about whether the conclusions were supported by the observations, what else the investigators could have done, and whether the research was leading in a direction that would be fruitful in the future. Seeing the whole from the small details becomes fun, and sometimes a small detail will open up understanding of a whole new paradigm. So there is the geeky sort of “did you catch what I caught” fun while watching a drama as well as looking to catch that small insight that will explain what one does not yet understand.

  7. Sure, scientists are trained to be critical, and that’s a good thing — in the proper context, i.e., interacting with fellow scientists and assessing actual research. And most creative sorts appreciate the occasional bit of constructive criticism. We’re not talking about that, we’re talking about the “gotcha!’ attitude that turns off many non-scientists and causes them ti just not listen to what scientists say. It’s not easy to come up with useful constructive criticism, but here’s a clue: be sure to start out with a brief recap of what someone got RIGHT, before launching into a laundry list of their sins…

  8. Dr. Dennis Chevalier

    The TASER has a maximum range of only 15 feet, not 35 feet.
    Taser International Arizona confirms this and I am an instructer in it.
    the TASER is a brand name as well as a description of the device.

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