Thursday, October 06, 2005

Books (Science): Corpse

I finished Jessica Snyder Sachs's Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death the other day. Corpse covers a rather narrow subset of forensics: determining the time of death. Those who watch TV crime dramas will probably be surprised to learn just how inaccurate the process is: even when the body is fresh, the estimate will span hours. There are just too many variables in how bodies break down to be precise.

The bulk of the book covers longer-range determinations, for bodies which have been lying around for days, weeks, or years. Most of the developments in this kind of forensic science have been in the past 25 years, though the book goes back centuries to find early examples.

Sachs covers four major avenues of investigation: anthropology, entymology, botany, and chemistry, with lively portraits of many of the contemporary researchers working in the field -- most of whom were quite happy in their own academic world studying flies or shurbs or whatever when the police would come knocking, asking if they could identify this maggot or that semi-digested leaf.

Most engaging are the stories of Bill Bass, creator of the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, a four-acre plot at the University of Tennessee where Bass dumps human cadavers to observe their decomposition under different conditions. Patricia Cornwell nicknamed it The Body Farm in her book of that name.

When reading about Bill Bass's forensic adventures, I got a distinct impression that he was a major inspiration behind the character of Gil Grissom from the original CSI series, though Bass is an anthropologist, while Grissom is an entymologist. In particular, the story of Bass being lowered head-first through a crack in the lid of a freshly exhumed Civil War coffin that had a headless, tuxedo-wearing corpse on top seemed very CSIish. Corpse illustrates how a number of different disciplines are coming together to revolutionize forensics, which may be why shows like CSI have popped up in such great numbers recently.

Like Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Corpse is an example of my favourite sort of narrow-focus science book: Sachs has an enjoyable writing style, and rather than simply describing breakthroughs in chronological order (as too many books do), she gives you some great stories about the people who make (and are making) the breakthroughs. You don't usually expect to laugh out loud at a book about decomposing bodies, but I did with this one.

I wouldn't recommend reading it over lunch, though. A description of cracking open an old skull to be greeted by a shower of maggots doesn't go very well with a chicken rice bowl at the food court.

Addendum: One thing I meant to mention, but forgot, is my one major complaint about the book: the complete lack of illustrations. Not that I was keen on photos of decomposing corpses, but it would have been nice to, at the least, have had photos of Bill Bass and the other researchers discuessed. Photos illustrating the differences between the various forms of blow flies or the stages of fly development would have been nice, as well, since these were important points in the text.


J.S. Sachs said...

Glad you enjoyed the book, James. I agree with you on the photos and even had what I thought was a great little collection to fill a photo well. But the powers at Perseus said "yech."

Best wishes,
p.s. now I'm writing a book about the microbes that colonize our bodies while we're still alive. (much harder to write, needs more laughs.) more info at

James said...

I must admit, I never actually expected to hear from any of the authors I was writing about here... Then again, I was never expecting to have more than a half-dozen readers. It's certainly nice to hear from you!

One question, though: why would someone who agreed to publish a book on decaying bodies say "yech" to your photos? Or perhaps the question is, why would someone who'd say "yech" to your photos agree to publish a book on decaying bodies?

I'm looking forward to the new book. Coincidentally, the subject of symbiotic microbes has been on my mind these last couple of days as it's discussed towards the end of Richard Dawkins's The Ancestor's Tale. Dawkins covers the concept in the Mixotrich paradoxa's tale, describing now not only does Mixotrich colonize a species of termite called Darwin's termites, but that the Mixotrich themselves are colonized by spirochaetes and pill bacteria which provide the Mixotrich with false cilia and flagella. Swift's poem about fleas was particularly apt there.

Dawkins's discussion got me thinking of a basic flaw in Jurassic Park type stories: even if you can clone a long-extinct life-form from recovered DNA, but if you can't clone the symbiotic bacteria the life-form depends on (and there are almost certainly going to be some), it won't survive.

I should be writing more on The Ancestor's Tale in the next couple of days, unless interrupted.

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