Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments – Real CSI basics – #bookreview

Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture
Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson
(O’Reilly, paperbackKindle)

Movies, TV shows and detective novels have elevated forensic science to a cultural fascination. And in real life, a clue uncovered with a microscope or a chemical test frequently is the one that provides the big break toward solving a crime.

You may daydream about what it might be like to work in a crime lab. And if you write crime novels, you likely will generate mental images of crime scene investigators or detectives trying to decipher puzzling clues. You might even picture a laboratory packed with sophisticated electronic analyzers that cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

Indeed, some labs do have that type of equipment. But this book’s authors note: “Here’s a startling fact: the 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.”

Indeed, they add: “You don’t need a multi-million dollar lab to do real, useful forensic investigations. All you need are some chemicals and basic equipment, much of which can be found around the home.”

You will also need “a decent microscope—the fundamental tool of the forensic scientist—but even an inexpensive student model will serve.”

The Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture is intended for “responsible” teenagers and adults who want “to learn about forensic science by doing real, hands-on laboratory work. DIY hobbyists and forensics enthusiasts can use this book to learn and master the essential practical skills and fundamental knowledge needed to pursue forensics as a lifelong hobby. Home school parents and public school teachers can use this book as the basis of a year-long, lab-based course in forensic science.”

The hefty, 425-page book offers more than 50 lab experiments, and each session represents actual procedures used each day by professional forensic analysts.

The labs are organized into 11 groups:

  1. Soil Analysis
  2. Hair and Fiber Analysis
  3. Glass and Plastic Analysis
  4. Revealing Latent Fingerprints
  5. Detecting Blood
  6. Impression Analysis
  7. Forensic Drug Testing
  8. Forensic Toxicology
  9. Gunshot and Explosive Residues Analysis
  10. Detecting Altered and Forged Documents
  11. Forensic Biology

Even though the book says it contains “no lectures,” each lab is introduced with a short background summary, plus lab safety cautions and warnings, lists of equipment and materials, and related how-to instructions. Also, each group of labs is introduced with a short overview of its category and its importance in forensic science. The book also contains comments from Dennis Hilliard, director of the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory.

This is not a book that young students should use without supervision. Even “responsible teens” will need close guidance. And adults, too, must be very careful to follow all safety instructions.

But this is a fascinating how-to guide for learning the basics of forensic science, whether you hope to do it as a career or hobby, gain a science credit, or merely describe some of the techniques in a mystery novel or screenplay.

Si Dunn

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The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra – Love, karate & mind-bending math in a helpful comic book – #bookreview #in

The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra
Shin Takahashi, Iroha Inoue, and Trend-Pro Co., Ltd.
(No Starch Press,
paperback, list price $24.95)

Linear algebra is one of the reasons I fled engineering school and became a writer many years ago. Mathematical abstractions and my mind just do not seem to know how to mix.

I would like to say that reading The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra has caused a complete breakthrough in my stubborn resistance to any math beyond simple equations. But that would be a complete lie. Linear transformations, inverse matrices, and eigenvectors still do not compute well inside my head. Of course, the good news – for me – is that they really don’t have to. I’m an old guy now and not worried about becoming a scientist or mathematician. I’ll never have to know a diagonalizable matrix from a determinant to cash a Social Security check.

But many young people do need to know linear algebra. And The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra can be helpful for any serious student, from middle-school age through college, who is wrestling with linear algebra concepts. It’s a fun book that mixes karate and romance with real math in a now well-proven comic book style that facilitates learning.

You do have to get past the fact that even this book has trouble presenting an easily grasped definition of linear algebra. “That’s a tough question to answer properly,” young math whiz Reiji Yurino confesses to his new love interest, Misa Ichinose. But once you do slide past his mind-numbing response (“Broadly speaking, linear algebra is about translating something residing in an m-dimensional space into a corresponding shape in an n-dimensional space”), each key concept is presented and illustrated in clever and helpful ways amid an unfolding story of young love and having to learn self-defense.

Thanks to this book, I now know more about linear algebra than I learned in my doomed attempt to become an electrical engineer. And who knows? If I had had the book many decades ago, I might now be lecturing in a university classroom, stealing quotes from Reiji Yurino, and telling you with a chuckle: “You can generally never find more than n different eigenvalues and eigenvectors for any nxn matrix.”

Seriously, if you know someone who is facing linear algebra with dread (maybe it’s you) or struggling with it and now expressing frustration and resistance, this book likely can help.

Si Dunn

Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments – Serious science for homeschoolers and biology hobbyists – #bookreview

Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture
Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson
(Make:Books/O’Reilly Media, paperback, list price $34.99; Kindle edition, list price $27.99)

This is serious science in the form of a 359-page workbook devoted to 30+ lab experiments that can be performed at home, with the right equipment and materials.

The book is intended for adults who want to “explore the science of nature as a life-long hobby,” and it’s intended for homeschoolers who need and want challenging biology labs.

The book’s experiments are not cheesy and simple. Some example titles include “Simulated DNA Separation by Gel Electrophoresis”, “Investigating Bacterial Antibiotic Sensitivity”, “Soil and Water Pollution Testing,” and “Observing Specialized Eukaryotic Cells.” The review questions at the end of each lab also are challenging and require thoughtful, written answers rather than simple fill-in-a-blank responses.

Background material is provided before each experiment. But the authors recommend that their book be used in conjunction with a standard biology textbook, such as “the freely downloadable CK-12 Biology.” Meanwhile, the authors’ company, The Home Scientist, LLC, offers “inexpensive custom kits that provide specialized equipment and supplies you’ll need to complete the experiments.” You will also need a microscope and some “common household items” to use this book.

Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments is well-written and well-illustrated. Before it introduces its experiments, it describes how to maintain a properly formatted laboratory notebook, how to set up a good home biology laboratory, how to use a microscope, and how to be careful with the necessary tools and materials. The workbook is part of the “DIY Science” series published by Make:Books, an imprint of Maker Media, which is a division of O’Reilly Media, Inc.

— Si Dunn

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