WHAT is the essence of you? What is it about you that makes you, well, you? These are no mere academic questions for armchair philosophers, but practical ones with real consequences.
Take a police artist sketching a suspect from an eyewitness description, or a profiler writing up the behavioural idiosyncrasies of a particular “perp”. These representations become tools in criminal investigations that often lead to arrests. If they fail to capture the essence of the person being sought, the wrong person may be arrested…
This article first appeared in New Scientist on 8 April 2017. To continue reading, click here.
IMAGINE a murder case in which the investigators decide to discount all scientific evidence. Fingerprints, palm prints, hair – all are packed away in crates and consigned to the basement while the detectives get on interrogating suspects and witnesses….
This article first appeared in New Scientist on 17 December 2016. To continue reading, click here.
IN April 1789, Lieutenant William Bligh set off from the Pacific island of Tahiti to sail halfway round the world to Jamaica. Twenty-three days into the voyage, his crew mutinied. They set him adrift in the Bounty’s launch, along with 18 men who were loyal to him, and dumped the ship’s cargo overboard. That cargo included 1000 breadfruit plants destined for the Jamaican sugar plantations, whose owners were clamouring for a cheap and reliable source of food for their slaves…
This article was first published in New Scientist on 28 June 2014. To continue reading, click here.
THE terrorist explosions that ripped through Madrid’s crowded commuter trains on the morning of 11 March 2004 killed 191 people, wounded some 2,000 more and prompted an international manhunt for the perpetrators. Soon after, Spanish investigators searching the area near one of the blasts discovered an abandoned set of detonator caps inside a plastic bag that bore a single, incomplete fingerprint. They immediately shared the clue with law-enforcement colleagues around the world. And on 6 May 2004, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield, proclaiming that his print was a match…
This article first appeared in Nature on 17 March 2010. To continue reading click here.
WITH the construction of the railways in the 19th century, a new sociological phenomenon was born: the travelling criminal. Until then, police had relied on local communities to recognise a bad apple in their midst, but now the felons were on the move, wreaking havoc in communities which had no knowledge of their past and hence no reason to be wary. For law enforcers trying to contain the problem by sharing descriptions of known recidivists, it became imperative to answer one question: what is it that identifies someone as a particular person?
This article first appeared in the Economist on 17 December 2009. To continue reading click here.