Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The C.S.I. Syndrome

The Science Fiction of C.S.I.

It's not uncommon that scientific progress was first visualized in fiction. And certain technologies that people believe are pure fantasy may in fact have been used in some obscure area, away from the mainstream scientific community. The writers of CSI appear to have tapped into just such an idea.

In the episode, "Committed," Gil Grissom, the character who heads up a crew at the Las Vegas crime lab, brings equipment into a psychiatric institution to try to solve a murder there. His colleague, Sara, calls it "acoustic archeology," and he describes research done during the 1960s on paintings and clay pots, in which scientists were able to capture sounds of the creative process from these seemingly impervious and silent material substances. The process is not unlike a gramophone, Grissom points out, used as a mechanical transducer to produce music when a stylus hits the grooves of a wax record in which sound vibrations are stored.

On the program, the hospital's art therapist has told Grissom that a suspect in the murder, Adam, had been using a potter's wheel when another suspect, a nurse, had argued with him. Grissom suspects that the nurse is actually Adam's obsessed and incestuous mother, who's found a way to be near him by getting hired. Since Adam was working with clay at the time they argued, Grissom hypothesizes that with a Doppler laser and optical transducer, he might derive sounds from the clay that could provide clues. With a computer hook-up, they hear a high-pitched noise and something that sounds like a word — the mother's pet name for her son. That seems to clinch it and they use what they know to confront the woman. She confesses. Case solved.

But can it actually be done? Interferometry is a science that combines two or more input points of data to deliver a high resolution manifestation. The principle is that two energy waves that coincide will amplify each other. The components for the receiving device involve a light source (such as a laser), a detector, two mirrors and a semi-transparent mirror. This provides two paths for the data sources to travel to the detector.

In the episode, the laser supposedly was able to read the sounds off the clay grooves as the pottery was turning, like the stylus on a gramophone. An interferometer would detect and channel them, and the transducer would convert them into something the human ear could comprehend.

Some scientists who saw this program complained on various Internet chats that the technology to perform this feat was not available — it was pure science fiction. Yet acoustic archaeology has reportedly known some success, and the C.S.I. writers apparently discovered it.

Book cover: Stone Age Soundtrack: The Acoustic Archaeology of Ancient Sites
Book cover: Stone Age Sound-
track: The Acoustic Archae-
ology of Ancient Sites

In Stone Age Soundtrack: The Acoustic Archaeology of Ancient Sites, Paul Devereux took a series of measurements of monolithic places such as Stonehenge and other prehistoric ceremonial sites to coax from the stones the sounds of rituals. Coupled with a computer, laser optic transducers can calculate the frequencies and timbres to indicate how the echoes in these places might have enhanced ritual music.

In short, people have applied the technology in areas other than investigation and claim to get results, primitive as they may be. The C.S.I. writers, seeking unique new ways to solve crimes, may have stretched into science fiction in this episode, but it's possible their creativity will inspire an investigator somewhere to pick up the ball and run. That remains to be seen.

So, while the C.S.I. Effect apparently has some negative implications in the courtroom, it also has some positive influences in both the courtroom and other arenas. Since crime dramas always rank high among television viewers, they will continue to be made. It remains for participants in the legal system to determine how to best exploit the positive influences and minimize the negative ones.

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