Law enforcement isn’t the only sector on top of fighting crime. Outside of the immediate scene of the crime and the courtroom, much of the race to determine the true nature of a crime, the motive, and the perpetrator happens in the forensics laboratory. Popularized in the mainstream by movies like L.A. Confidential and the TV series CSI, the field of forensic science has garnered increasing interest among the general public. People have grown curious about what constitutes a forensic scientist’s job, and how he or she will solve that difficult puzzle of what truly went down at the scene of the crime.

Forensic scientists hew to this method: (1) accurately reconstructing the timeline and the circumstances in which a particular crime occurred, (2) singling out the unique traces left behind on the scene, and (3) drawing a conclusion based on thorough examination and careful analysis. Occupying a central role in all of this is modern microscopy.

Interested in zeroing in on what’s under the surface, all with the same calm and cool perspective of Gil Grissom? Read on for a clearer picture on forensic microscopy, new microscopic technologies, and how a forensic scientist develops their frame of mind.

Sleuthing with Modern Forensic Microscopy

Each of those tasked by the citizenry to combat crime will do so with special tools at their disposal. Cops typically wield pistols and bulletproof vests, while lawyers come to the courtroom with all the necessary legal work in their briefcases. Conversely, it is microscopic tools, techniques, and approaches that form a forensic scientist’s crime-busting arsenal. He or she will use the microscope as an analytical tool to study trace evidence, which can come in the form of fingerprints, used bullets, human hair, blood splatters, pieces of fabric, and the like.  

In the forensic lab, trace evidence is magnified in great detail through a microscope, identified for what it is, and compared to other samples of importance. Different types of microscopes typically used in a forensic lab are a compound microscope, stereomicroscope (two compound microscopes aligned side-by-side at a fixed visual angle), and powerful polarized light microscope; the usage of these different types depends on the nature of the specimen to be studied. Moreover, modern microscopea in a forensics lab might come outfitted with motion components like linear stages for precision positioning, which allows for the accurate translation of optics and samples for proper focusing.

What accounts for this breadth of new microscopic technologies, and the corresponding need to populate a forensics lab with up-to-date implements? It’s the hard truth that criminals evolve their methods with the times, and there’s a risk that they have become even smarter about cleaning up after themselves.  The various breakthroughs in microscopic technologies afford those in the lab a clearer, more magnified perspective of what could have happened in each crime scene. In such high-stakes situations, it’s the good guys who need to have the upper hand.

A Mindset for Solving Crime

It isn’t just the tool itself that matters to forensic microscopy; the solution of each mystery also lies in the skill, knowledge, and technical mastery of the forensic scientist who serves as the microscope’s operator.

Some of the knowledge that a forensic scientist would need in order to maximize this high level of microscopic technology are the following:

  • An understanding of optics, or the rules that govern how each image of trace evidence is formed;
  • Knowledge in optical crystallography and mineralogy, which enables a thorough comparison of materials like the sand and soil on the crime scene;
  • Mastery of microchemical analysis methods, for a study of each sample’s elemental and chemical composition;
  • Knowledge of the morphological characteristics, as well as chemical properties, of common forms of evidence like human hair, animal hair, fiber, pollen, and the like, and;
  • Absolute proficiency in preparing each kind of sample for study under the instrument.

Thus, updated microscopic technology, paired with a forensic scientist’s human expertise, are behind the true success of each crime-busting phase that takes place in the forensics lab.

Conclusion: The Power of Science, Practical Action, and Swift Justice

For the wide potential it encompasses, forensic science is only one part of the equation to solving crime. It acts as a supplement to local law enforcement and the justice system. A triumph to one sector must translate into a triumph for all.

Let’s celebrate the good work done by each of these crime-fighting parties in recreating the circumstances of each crime, bringing the perpetrators to justice, and narrowing the threshold for future occurrence of wrongdoing.