Dennis Hilliard

Robert Bruce Thompson (author of Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments) and Barbara Fritchman Thompson (co-author with Bob on Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders) are hard at work on a new book that is going to bring DIY CSI to your home or basement lab: Illustrated Guide to Forensics Investigations (coming from MAKE in 2009).

One of the tech reviewers on the book is Dennis Hilliard, Director of the Rhode Island State Crime Lab. I stopped by the lab recently, and Dennis treated me to a full tour of it. It’s a really impressive facility. They provide forensics services to state and local police, and in some cases federal authorities.

CSI in action

Although I’ve been told that real forensics is not all that much like what you see on TV, it’s actually not that far off. There are many computers, lots of test firings, and plenty of hands-on science.

There doesn’t seem to be any of the soap opera-like drama you see on TV, and Dennis tells me that in much of the US, the scientists are not police officers. Because of this, the forensic scientists often work with police officers to teach them how to gather, preserve, and process evidence, and also a bit of the scientific method.

But the key difference is that unlike TVs, the computers don’t do all the work. Instead, scientists use the computers to reduce uncertainty (always comparing the known to the unknown), and make the call themselves.

Flickr set: November 2008 visit to the RI State Crime Lab