Crime writers are the victims as Sherlock’s too slow for forensics
Whodunnit? Forensic scientists know before the novelist does
By Hannah Furness, Arts Correspondent 11:45PM BST 18 Jul 2015
They are tireless in their fight against crime, developing ever-more sophisticated science to thwart the wrongdoers in our midst. But as we admire the cutting-edge work of forensic scientists, spare a thought for their inadvertent victims: the crime writers.
Authors are facing an ever-growing challenge of devising plots that would not be solved in a matter of hours because of forensic and technological developments, it has been claimed.
Some of Britain’s leading crime writers have spoken of the “nightmare” of keeping storylines up to date while still allowing readers to enjoy some good old-fashioned detective work.
This weekend, crime writers are convening in Harrogate for the annual Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival to discuss their detective work with fans.
Among them will be Val McDermid, renowned for her attention to forensic detail, who argues the technical side of crime writing was undoubtedly easier in the era of Agatha Christie.
The developments in technology mean that writers have had to get to grips with the major turning point of DNA identification, soil and pollen analysis, gunshot residue and even training wasps to find buried bodies.
And that is before writers even turn to other technologies, from CCTV footage to cell site analysis to track mobile phones. The constant presence of mobiles and social media make the classic trope of a disappearance through misunderstanding “almost impossible”.
“It has become more difficult and you have to be a little bit more creative in working your way around it,” said McDermid, who has also written a book about forensics alongside her bestselling crime novels. “When you have a new development in forensic science, as a crime writer your first thought is how do I work my way around that?
“Because these new developments do make for a slightly more complicated environment for us to be working in. If you look back 20 years even, what was available in terms of evidential analysis was really quite low level.
“The writer had a lot of leeway and could leave forensic traces that were never going to be picked up on.” She added: “If you’re going to use the forensic stuff you have to get it right. Readers are very sophisticated and very well informed. If you get it wrong it’s not just the experts who will haul you over the coals, it’s the readers.”
In some cases, she revealed, she agrees to keep cutting edge forensic techniques out of her books so real-life criminals do not learn of the police’s latest techniques.
Peter James, author of the Roy Grace series of detective novels, said he saw technological developments as an opportunity to make the genre more exciting, embedding himself with Sussex Police to research the latest techniques.
“I’ve always jokingly said it would be wonderful to write an Agatha Christie novel with modern forensics,” he said. “Featuring a final scene in the library with Poirot saying ‘I can tell you who did it’.
“It would blow the ending of every Agatha Christie novel apart, probably. It’s a never-ending game of catch-up.”
Prof Sue Black, director of the centre for anatomy and human identification at the University of Dundee, who advises authors, said: “For crime writers, it can be a nightmare because they have got to keep things as current as they possibly can.”
She added that writers may soon face yet another hurdle in their quest to build tension, with a breakthrough of immediate testing for DNA at a crime scene likely within the next decade. It would mean that the vital hours, days or weeks waiting for laboratory tests to come back will be a thing of the past.
Telegraph critic Jake Kerridge, who will be appearing at the festival, added: “Post-CSI, readers expect crime writers to go into the minutiae of the forensics – perhaps to a greater extent than our strapped-for-cash police services.”
• The Theakstons Crime Writing Festival takes place today in Harrogate, N Yorks
Real velociraptors hardly resembled the huge scaly lizards shown in Jurassic World
By Stephen Brusatte and The Conversation UK July 17, 2015
Tens of millions of people have flocked to theatres this summer to see Jurassic World, an action flick “starring” a team of trained Velociraptors that hunt genetically modified dinosaurs on command of their human master.The Conversation
It’s a preposterous storyline of course, but very entertaining. I study dinosaurs for a living and it didn’t bother me to see Velociraptors being used as hunting dogs for the sake of good cinema. What I didn’t like, however, was that the Velociraptors were depicted as big, drab-coloured, scaly brutes.
That’s because the real Velociraptor was a lapdog-sized predator covered in feathers. Palaeontologists have known this for a while. If you look at the arm bones of Velociraptoryou can see a row of bumps, identical in size and shape to the quill knobs of living birds: the anchor points for big wing feathers. But because Velociraptor hasn’t been found in the perfect geological settings that fossilise soft tissues, we don’t know exactly what its feathers would have looked like.
But we have a better idea now, thanks to the discovery of a spectacular new dinosaur from northeastern China that I studied with my colleague, Junchang Lü of the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences.
Our new dinosaur, Zhenyuanlong, is one of the closest cousins of Velociraptor. Its gorgeous chocolate-coloured skeleton was found by a farmer in 125-million-year-old rocks that were laid down in a quiet lake buried by volcanic ash. It’s just the right environment for preserving the soft bits that usually decay before a fossil is formed.
Zhenyuanlong is covered in feathers. Simple hairy filaments coat much of the body, larger veined feathers stick out from the tail, and big quill-pen-feathers line the arms, layered over each other to form a wing. This is a dinosaur that looks just like a bird. If you could see it alive you would probably make no distinction between it and, say, a turkey or a vulture.
Look at Zhenyuanlong and you see what the real Velociraptor would have been like. Far from being a scaly-skinned reptilian monster, Velociraptor would have been a fluffy, feathered poodle from hell.
Dinosaurs such as Zhenyuanlong and Velociraptor are some of my favourite fossils to study. They fascinate me because they capture evolution in action. These small, fast-running, brainy predators are some of the closest relatives of birds. They are chapters in one of the greatest stories in the history of life: the evolutionary transition between fearsome carnivorous dinosaurs and their 10,000 feathered descendants that live on today, all over the world.
And this is why the discovery of Zhenyuanlong is really important. It gives us new insight into this incredible moment in evolution. Zhenyuanlong is fairly large for a close relative of birds, two metres long from snout to tail. It also has much shorter arms than Velociraptor or birds. A big, short-armed animal probably wasn’t flying, so what was it doing with its wings? We don’t know for sure.
This opens up a whole new mystery for us to solve: why did wings evolve? Did they evolve for flight, or did they first develop for something else, and were later co-opted to be used as an airfoil? We don’t know the answer yet, but since new fossils of bird-like dinosaurs are being found at an incredible rate, maybe we’ll have it solved by the time the next Jurassic Park comes out.
I couldn't do this, but I respect her for what she is trying to do......
She charges hundreds for fur made of road-kill
By Richa Naik
A dead animal on the side of the road makes plenty of people cringe, but not Pamela Paquin.
She turns roadkill into expensive high-fashion fur pieces.
Pamela Paquin, founder of Petite Mort Fur, sells items including a coyote neck muff ($1,500), a red fox wrap stole ($2,000) and racoon leg warmers ($2,000.) Some pieces are a tad less pricey, like a $45 pair of fur earrings.
Her aim is to create a new market for what she calls "ethical fur."
Nearly 1 million animals are killed every day on the road, according to the Humane Society of the United States. And over 50 million animals are killed each year in the fur industry, according to Last Chance for Animals.
That's where Paquin sees an opportunity.
"It was a wasted resource and I decided after some deep thought that I could make a viable business out of this," she said, adding that she hopes to "completely mitigate the need to have animals in cages."
Paquin, who lives outside of Boston, works with the Highway Department and animal control officers who are responsible for clearing animals killed on roads.
"I started working with the Highway Department and animal control officers who would report them to me when they had an animal down. They took me seriously, thank God."
Now, when they hear of dead animals, they contact Paquin.
She drives out to pick the animal up herself. And if it's possible, she skins the animal where she found it.
"I like to put the remains in the woods for other animals to have safely as a meal. It's like roadkill sushi, really, but it's in a safe place rather than having the scavengers go on the road and get hit as well."
Next Paquin ships her furs to a tannery. After that,she sews her one-of-a-kind pieces. Each fur piece is adorned with a sterling silver badge that says what the animal was and where and when it was killed. One neckmuff says the fur came from a bear that was killed on Route 91 in Brattleboro, Vermont.
"It's a way for the customer to honor the animal and the animal's life, rather than dissociating from it in the way you have to when you have fur that comes from trapped or caged animals."
Paquin wears her own creations and says people often stop her to ask where the fur came from.
"When I tell them it was roadkill, their eyes roll back in their head and their jaw drops on the ground," Paquin said. But that doesn't stop them from ordering.
"I could not sew fast enough," she said. "It was more than I could handle, really. I was trying to keep up."
As a young girl, Paquin grew up around animals and spent time on farms. When her sixth-grade biology teacher asked if someone could bring roadkill to class for dissection, Paquin happily volunteered.
And that mentality has carried on through her life.
"If I'm going to benefit from an animal's life and consequential death, then I need to be able to look it in the eye and face it, and make sure that it's done well and with respect."
Sadly, the only hedgehog I've seen this year was a dead one at the side of the road.
Makes me wonder what is happening to them (pretty obvious what happened to that one). Same with frogs, Haven't seen one this year. We used to have thousands of them.
It is very worrying.
I actually slow down for dragon flies while driving....no lie and the number of coons and possums and occasional dog and cat or turtle run over is heart wrenching..but I noted also like you frogs are down in number here as well..i have yet to see one in fact. That does not bode well for insect control..which the dragon flies and frogs do quite well.
« Last Edit: Jul 19th, 2015, 3:26pm by Sys_Config »
The lack of frogs is a real problem to me as they used to eat a lot of the smaller slugs. slugs are the bane of my life. They can decimate the young plants overnight. We were always wary of using slug pellets due to the risk to any hedgehog that might eat the poisoned slug. I even created a patch of garden fenced of with a 1 foot high chicken wire guard fence so I could poison the slugs in relative safety: not safe for the slugs.
Things are changing. Hardly any bees. Very few butterflies.
Author: Sarah Zhang Date of Publication: 07.20.15.
A Russian Tycoon Is Spending $100 Million to Hunt for Aliens
Russian billionaire Yuri Milner made his name through savvy investments in social media companies like Facebook. But now the theoretical-physicist-turned-tech-tycoon is sinking $100 million into science’s most quixotic quest: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Announced today, the ten-year Breakthrough Listen initiative will conduct the most comprehensive sweep of space for signals from intelligent aliens ever.
Of course, that’s no guarantee it will succeed. “We should be asking the difficult questions,” says Milner, echoing President John F. Kennedy’s famous words about going to the moon. At a July 20 event—chosen, of course, to coincide with the anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing—Milner said over the weekend that he plans to announce Breakthrough Listen, flanked by scientific luminaries such as Frank Drake, he of the Drake equation that estimates the number of detectable alien civilizations, and Geoff Marcy, an astronomer who has helped find hundreds of exoplanets. (Eminent physicist Stephen Hawking will be there, too, though he himself is not leading the project.)
The scientific braintrust will have the best technology $100 million can buy. “It’s a dream come true,” says Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and another leader on the initiative. The key purchase will be significant observation time on two of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes, the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia. (A specialized optical telescope at the Lick Observatory in California is also involved.) Together, the radio telescopes will cover 10 times more sky than previous searches and scan the entire 1-to-10 gHz range, the so-called “quiet zone” in the spectrum where radio waves are unobscured by cosmic sources or Earth’s atmosphere; presumably, intelligent aliens will know to broadcast in this zone if they want anyone to hear them.
So that’s where the second big purchase will come in. The Breakthrough Listen researchers will need specialized electronics to process all the data; a room at University of California’s Campbell Hall is already set aside for a team to create the hardware and software to make the search possible. All these ideas have been out there in the SETI community for decades, says Siemion. “We just haven’t had the computing technology and the resources,” he says. Milner’s gift changes that playing field.
Eventually, the researchers will make all the data public, so anyone can join the search for intelligent life. Breakthrough Listen will also be part of SETI@home, in which people contribute spare cycles from their home computers to parse SETI data via a screensaver.
Why spend the money now? Milner says he was compelled by the fact that planets orbiting their stars in the so-called habitable zone—where the temperature makes it possible for liquid water to exist—are more common than anyone thought, as shown by results from NASA’s Kepler mission. “For the first time,” says Milner, “we have scientific evidence of how many places can harbor life.” The number of habitable plants is a variable in the Drake equation, and Kepler’s results have nudged the probability of finding alien civilizations higher. Also, computing power has caught up, and telescopes are available. SETI researchers have traditionally had to fight for telescope time with astronomers who, frankly, know exactly what they’re looking for. But the Green Bank, Parkes, and Lick Observatories have all suffered funding woes of late, making them more receptive to money from a tech billionaire.
In the half-century since Frank Drake first pointed a radio telescope into space to look for aliens, SETI research has struggled for legitimacy. Scientists have heard nothing but a few bloops, ultimately attributed to things like stray radiation from microwave ovens. Funding never quite recovered from when Congress canceled NASA’s SETI program in 1993. The non-profit SETI Institute’s ambitious Allen Telescope Array has only a fraction of the dishes the project originally envisioned. In 2011, lack of funding forced the array to hibernate for several months. Things were bleak.
More than that, a specter hangs over all SETI research: Are they looking for the right things? “Can I tell you an honest answer? I don’t have any idea,” says Marcy, who holds the Watson and Marilyn Alberts SETI Chair at Berkeley. The search for alien signals is a lot of guesswork, limited by our own technological advancement. As Marcy points out, we humans wouldn’t have even known to listen for radio signals in the 1890s, and a hundred years before that humans were still communicating with smoke signals. So maybe scientists don’t know what to listen for now.
In any case, Milner acknowledges the endeavor will likely take more than the 10 years for which he’s funding the initiative. So what happens if Breakthrough Listen doesn’t find anything? “We’ll roll it over for another 10 years,” says Milner. “Why stop? The question is interesting enough to keep going.”
Stephen Hawking: it is time to hunt for alien civilisations
The new project, called Breakthrough Listen, is chaired by Lord Rees the astronomer royal and backed by Professor Stephen Hawking
By Sarah Knapton, Science News 2:35PM BST 20 Jul 2015
Professor Stephen Hawking said it was ‘time to commit to finding the answer to life beyond Earth’ as he launched a $100 million project to hunt for intelligent aliens.
The astrophysicist joined Lord Martin Rees, the astronomer Royal and Russian philanthropist Yuri Milner to announce the project at the Royal Society in London.
The initial 10 year programme will survey the 1,000,000 closest stars to Earth, scanning the entire galactic plane of the Milky Way.
Beyond our galaxy it will listen for messages from the 100 closest galaxies at 10 billion different frequencies.
“To understand the universe you must know about atoms, about the forces that bind them, the contours of space and time, the birth and death of stars, the dance of galaxies, the secrets of black holes. But that is not enough." he said.
“These ideas cannot explain everything. They can explain the light of stars but not the lights that shine from planet earth. To understand these lights you must know about life, about minds.
“We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth. So in an infinite universe there must be other occurrences of life.
“Somewhere in the universe intelligent life may be watching the lights of ours aware of what they mean.
“Either way there is no better question. It is time to commit to finding the answer to life beyond Earth. We are life, we are intelligent, we must know.”
The new project, called Breakthrough Listen, is chaired by Lord Rees and will cover 10 times the amount of sky which has been scanned by previous programs dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrial life.
The scientists estimate that if a civilisation based around one of the 1,000 nearest stars transmits to us with the power of an aircraft radar then the new array will be able to detect it.
“It’s a huge gamble of course, but the pay off would be colossal,” said Lord Rees, “The chance of finding life has risen a billion fold when we realised that Earth-like planets are not rare, but there are literally billions of them, within our own Galaxy.
“We don't know what we will see, it may be organic life or machines created by a long dead civilisations, but it would transform our view of the universe.”
The project will be joining forces with SETI@home, University of California, Berkeley’s ground breaking distributed computing platform, with 9 million volunteers around the world donating their spare computing power to search astronomical data for signs of life.
Collectively, it already constitutes one of the largest supercomputers in the world.
One of the project leaders is Frank Drake, the American astrophysicist who first calculated that alien life is inevitable given the size of the universe.
“Right now there could be messages from the stars flying right through the room, through us all," said Drake. "That still sends a shiver down my spine. The search for intelligent life is a great adventure. And Breakthrough Listen is giving it a huge lift.
“We’ve learned a lot in the last fifty years about how to look for signals from space. With the Breakthrough Initiatives, the learning curve is likely to bend upward significantly.”
Milner, who was named after Yuri Gagrin, the first man in space, said he was committed to bringing the ‘Silicon Valley’ approach to hunting for intelligent life in the Universe.
“We are launching the most comprehensive search project ever,” he said. “Breakthrough (Listen) in one day will collect more data than one year.”
However the team will not be attempting to communicate with alien civilisations, even if they do pick up signs that they exist.
Professor Hawking added: “We don't know about aliens, but we know about humans. If you look a history then contact between humans and less intelligent organisms have often been disastrous from their point of view.
“The civilisations reading one of our messages could be billions of years ahead. If so they will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.
“It only took five hundred million years for life to evolve on Earth, but it took two and half billion to get to multicellular organisms, and technological intelligence has appeared only once, so it may be very rare.
“When it does evolve we only need to look in the mirror to knew that it can be fragile and prone to self-destruction.”
Music training initiated during high school might hone brain development
Date: July 20, 2015 Source: Northwestern University
Music training, begun as late as high school, may help improve the teenage brain's responses to sound and sharpen hearing and language skills, suggests a new Northwestern University study.
The research, to be published the week of July 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), indicates that music instruction helps enhance skills that are critical for academic success.
The gains were seen during group music classes included in the schools' curriculum, suggesting in-school training accelerates neurodevelopment.
"While music programs are often the first to be cut when the school budget is tight, these results highlight music's place in the high school curriculum," said Nina Kraus, senior study author and director of Northwestern's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at the School of Communication.
"Although learning to play music does not teach skills that seem directly relevant to most careers, the results suggest that music may engender what educators refer to as 'learning to learn,'" Kraus added.
Kraus and colleagues recruited 40 Chicago-area high school freshmen in a study that began shortly before school started. They followed these children longitudinally until their senior year.
Nearly half the students had enrolled in band classes, which involved two to three hours a week of instrumental group music instruction in school. The rest had enrolled in junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), which emphasized fitness exercises during a comparable period. Both groups attended the same schools in low-income neighborhoods.
Electrode recordings at the start of the study and three years later revealed that the music group showed more rapid maturation in the brain's response to sound. Moreover, they demonstrated prolonged heightened brain sensitivity to sound details.
All participants improved in language skills tied to sound-structure awareness, but the improvement was greater for those in music classes, compared with the ROTC group.
According to the authors, high school music training -- increasingly disfavored due to funding shortfalls -- might hone brain development and improve language skills.
The stable processing of sound details, important for language skills, is known to be diminished in children raised in poverty, raising the possibility that music education may offset this negative influence on sound processing.
"Our results support the notion that the adolescent brain remains receptive to training, underscoring the importance of enrichment during the teenage years," the authors wrote.