Oberlin Blogs

Chemistry Scene Investigation, part two (CSI)

December 7, 2008

Zoe McLaughlin ’11

My first tip of the day: when you're scheduled to go to court, make sure that your alarm clock will actually go off to wake you up. Otherwise, you will add I'm going to be late! to your already long list of problems that include (but are not limited to) I don't have any black pants! How did I leave my concert pants at home?! and Does my blue shirt really go with my khaki pants? (Not to mention What if they ask something completely random about FT-IR that I don't know?)

That's right. My analytical chem class had its trial Saturday morning, and my alarm clock malfunctioned so I nearly didn't make it at all. Luckily, my body must have some sort of time sense, because I managed to wake up five minutes before I had to be there. (Which was actually half an hour before the trial started, so I had plenty of time.) I dashed out of my dorm in high heels - not an easy feat, mind you - and over to the science center where I quickly met with the rest of my group for a final review of our plan. Then I ate a cookie (also known as my breakfast) and settled down with the other side's lab report to see if they had any surprises for us. They didn't. Our part of the case was probably the most straight forward of any group - there was really no question about which spectrum of which unknown white powder matched which drug.

The trial began with the judge (who looked suspiciously like our professor, just decked out in a green choir robe) banging with his mortar and pestle to call the court to order. Each team then had a representative swear on our textbook to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help us, Harris. (Harris wrote the textbook.) Then the opening statements began. We laid out our version of the events, which was pretty complicated. There was one section that just involved doping charges and another that involved more sinister plots to steal the silver medal and burn down an apartment.

The first surprise came when the defense pleaded no contest to the charge about who stole the silver medal. We'd originally thought we'd known for sure on that, but upon running through the numbers realized that the person we'd accused didn't have the whole silver medal, only most of it. But we won that one anyway. The defense also pleaded no contest on the drug possession charges, which meant that my group was pretty much done. We presented our evidence anyway, because we needed to link some of the possession charges to the doping charges.

The next big surprise came when the defense claimed that no accelerants had been used to start the apartment fire. This was a complete contradiction of what another of the groups on my team had found to be true. Kerosene had started the fire and they had the data to prove it. We started passing notes like mad amongst ourselves about what we should be doing during cross examination.

My group didn't get cross examined at all since, like I said, our part was pretty much open-and-shut. The cross examinations of the other groups got pretty heated, though. There was a lot of discussion of uncertainty and error in calculations, and "So you just guessed" became a very loaded sentence. (There was no guessing done, but when you put it in those terms...) Both the defense and the prosecution managed to point out flaws in each other's work, but I think things got a little too technical for the jury to fully grasp what we were trying to say.

After the cross examination (which was peppered with several very dramatic objections, just like on TV), it was time for the closing statements. The defense's was solid, asserting their clients' innocence and saying that there was definitely a reasonable doubt as to our accusations. Our closing statement, on the other hand, was pretty scathing and involved such lines as "Today you have seen the difference between uncertainty in results and bad science."

Unfortunately, it didn't quite seem to ring true with the jury. The defense won the bigger parts of the trial, and we only won the smaller doping charges. Still, we then all got to eat pizza and find out how our counterpart group on the defense got such good spectra (they had good pellets, though we can't figure out how they got good pellets), so it was all good.

The best part was probably hearing what actually happened. We'd gotten some of it wrong, so it was probably a good thing that we didn't win the big charges. The actual story came close to soap opera proportions, with love triangles galore, jealousy, and nearly everyone in love with everyone else. We definitely hadn't seen all those complexities when we were doing all our scientific analysis...maybe we need to develop some better techniques?

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