Ripped From the Headlines! (Of Scientific Journals)

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There’s one scientific question that rivals all others. Okay, it may be more a philosophical dilemma than a scientific one, but it has kept scientists and thinkers, the world round, busy for millennia. Apparently, it pits Stephen Hawking against Aristotle, if you believe Wikipedia. To know the answer would be to understand existence. I am talking, of course, about the question of the chicken and the egg. Which came first?

Now, as much as the National Academy of Sciences would surely appreciate my weighing in on this, I won’t be doing that here. I raise the question as a means of segueing into my first post here on the Science & Entertainment Exchange blog. 

If there’s one question we get asked most on CSI: Miami, it’s about where we get the inspiration and the science for our stories. “How in the world did you come up with all of that?” In attempting an answer, I think of the chicken and the egg. Which came first: the idea of the murder or the science our CSIs needed to solve it? That answer is about as futile as the one for the chicken and the egg. It … kinda … all depends. 

Sometimes, we’ll come across a scientific discovery or advanced forensic technique that is so cool, so new, or so far out there that we create a story just so we can use it. Reconstructing a murder weapon from multiple stab wounds. Using an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (fancy pacemaker) to determine a victim’s final moments alive. Recreating a “virtual crime scene” from stitched-together digital photos. When we find scientific possibilities like these, it’s as if we’ve stumbled on to a secret that we can’t wait to tell. 

More often, the idea for an episode begins with a scenario, particularly one where someone ends up dead. Dude covered in blood has amnesia. Girl blows up in a fitting room, trying on a dress. Man runs through party, engulfed in flames. These are created from the ether, imagined. But science is science. You can’t just sit in a room and make that part up, try as we might. However you can find yourself saying: “wouldn’t it be cool if we could….” And through research and talking with experts (plug: the Science & Entertainment Exchange is a great first step in finding that expert), we usually find some scientific basis for what we need to tell our story. And inevitably, it’s cooler than something we could have made up. You hear about shows being “ripped from the headlines.” Well our story ideas spring as much from scientific journals as they do from the front page of the daily newspaper.

In breaking an episode this season, we had our CSIs try to solve a murder that occurred a year ago or more. The catch: we needed our heroes to have always had the evidence in their possession. The problem: How do you hold on to evidence for over a year and not look like total inept chumps? A writer in the room started, “wouldn’t it be cool if the technology to discover the evidence didn’t exist a year ago?” Turns out, not only would it be cool, it actually is possible. We found an article touting a new fingerprint analysis technique. It reveals a print’s unique chemical signature and uses that to separate prints obscured beneath others. Latent fingerprints are made up of oils from your skin and whatever other substances that may have been picked up through touch. Thus, the chemical make-up of your print is as unique to you as its pattern. Before this discovery, separating layered fingerprints was impossible. By using this technique, called DESI (I’ll spare you the big words that make up that acronym), our CSIs would be able to isolate chemicals and tease out an image of each unique print. And one of those prints would belong to our killer.

I’m not sure which was the chicken in this anecdote and which was the egg, but the circular nature of the relationship was the same. The story came first, which created the need for the science, which beget really cool science, which told a really cool story. What’s more, our CSIs look like brilliant crime-solvers. Now, it helps that our CSIs just happen to work in the most advanced and well-equipped forensic lab this side of Las Vegas, but that’s for another post. 

There was an additional unexpected benefit from highlighting the practical application of this recent scientific discovery. The scientist and the school behind the DESI found themselves in the spotlight amongst their peers, being recognized once again for their work. By some crazy confluence of events, their scientific curiosity became the lynchpin to an episode watched by millions around the world. A win for both science and entertainment. 

A quick post script: After the Exchange’s symposium last November, I was inspired to report back to the writers with all the mind-blowing things I witnessed. Like 3-D television … surely that could make its way into our show’s A.V. lab. I’m still trying to figure out how we might use Lawrence Goldstein’s presentation about nerve cell transportation as the inspiration for some new tool in the lab. And Bonnie Brassler’s talk about bacterial communication … I don’t know where to begin, but to say we’re CSI: Miami! If any show can turn that science into feasible forensic entertainment, it’s us! Keep an eye out. These ideas will eke themselves, one way or another, into the entertainment we love to watch. They’re too cool not to.


The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.