Book Review: “Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments”

forensic coverThis rather heavy, 425-page, soft-cover book is intended for anyone, from teenagers to adults, who want to get a better understanding of forensic science. You can get some understanding from just reading the book, but an even greater understanding by doing the lab work yourself. By doing so, you will get a more accurate feel for the science than you get by watching cop shows on television. (And maybe you will be better able to weigh evidence if you become a juror.)

As the authors Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson say in the Preface:

“If your only knowledge of forensic science comes from watching CSI and similar programs, you may wonder whether modern forensic science is just a matter of white-smocked acolytes and hard-bodied assistants awaiting answers from expensive high-tech instruments, which answers they invariably get in time to solve the crime before the closing credits roll. The reality is far different. Sherlock Holmes with his magnifying glass and Dr. John Thorndyke with his microscope and lab bench are much more realistic representations of actual day-to-day forensic science work…[T]he vast majority of forensic work, even today, is done with low-tech procedures that would be familiar to a forensic scientist of 100 years ago.”

The first two chapters of the book deal with laboratory safety and setting up your lab. Much of the equipment you may have around the house or can obtain locally or online. The authors also offer a kit at their website: Note that many experiments require a microscope. Chapter two discusses the type of microscope that will best serve you and how to get one.

The remainder of the book is divided into 11 “groups” each dealing with a different aspect of collecting and processing evidence. The groups are: Soil Analysis, Hair and Fiber Analysis, Glass and Plastic Analysis, Revealing Latent Fingerprints, Blood Detection, Impression Analysis, Forensic Drug Testing, Forensic Toxicology, Gunshot and Explosives Residues Analysis, Detecting Forgeries and Fakes, and Forensic Biology. This structure makes each group of experiments stand alone, so you can read/try just those experiments that may interest you.

Each group has an introduction explaining how that piece of evidence is used and what it can tell you. That is followed by detailed explanations of several experiments you can do. At the end of each section, the authors ask questions about what you should have learned, and provide space where you can write the answers – just like a workbook you may have had in school.

Since I am a geologist, I was particularly interested in the Soil Analysis experiments. The authors explain in detail how to do each test, why you do it that way, and sometimes suggest alternative ways to do something (just in case you don’t happen to have a $45,000 mass spectrometer lying around the house, for instance). I found that just reading the experiments was very informative. I learned a few things about soils that I hadn’t even considered before.

My wife Lonni was also interested in inspecting this book because she is a crime/mystery writer. Lonni had just recently attended a conference put on by the Public Safety Writer’s Association (PSWA) at which police, FBI agents, and forensic scientists schooled the writers in proper procedures. Lonni noted that the professionals at the conference said exactly what the authors wrote in their Preface about the reality of forensic science.

Lonni said she will keep this book on her reference shelf. I would not be surprised to see some of the procedures that are outlined in this book appear in some of Lonni’s future stories. Maybe mystery writers represent a market for the book the authors did not consider. (Blatant plug, see Lonni’s books: Deranged, winner of first place award at PSWA and Crawlspace.)

This book has a good index, something very valuable in this type of work.

You can get the Illustrated Guide at Amazon, Barnes&Noble, or from the publisher: O’Reilly.

See my other Book Reviews here.