FFrom a lonely set of finger bones to a fragment of a skull in a washing machine, the cases Dame Sue Black has helped solve may seem too gruesome for the joyful spectacle that is the Royal Institution’s Christmas lectures.
But it’s not the stuff of nightmares that Black, one of the world’s leading forensic anthropologists, will explore by giving Britain’s most prestigious public science lectures this winter.
Instead, she will investigate the myriad ways in which our bodies are linked to our identity.
“Where we translate it, [our work] can get horrifying, but what we’re actually doing is fascinating to everyone, because you’re only talking about yourself,” she said.
A prime example is Black’s work on how the creases, veins, freckles, and other features of our hands can be used to tell us apart.
“We can get everyone to look at their hands, to look at their vein patterns, to understand why they’re different right and left, why they’re different from your identical twin – which really makes it DNA different” , said The Black. “All of this stuff gets very personal, and the kind of stuff you can talk about, believe it or not, across the breakfast table.”
The app is, however, rather darker. Black pioneered the approach in response to a case involving a teenage girl who said she was sexually abused by her father. The girl had captured video footage, but investigators had little to do except for footage of the attacker’s hands.
Professor of anatomy and now president of St John’s College, Oxford, Black’s work ranges from the mundane – including fetching bodies – to the existential, questioning what makes us who we are and how others can identify us.
These questions are what Black hopes to explore with the public at Christmas talks, with input from lawyers, detectives, pathologists and even dog handlers.
“We want to be able to convey that the human body is really just layers and layers of memory and memories that have accumulated over time,” she said.
Indeed, while our DNA is rooted in our ancestors, other characteristics – like our fingerprints – are shaped not only by genetics, but also by the environment and developmental processes we experience in the womb.
Life experiences can also leave their mark: in one case, Black used clues in the costal cartilage of a body found in the woods to reveal that the person may have been transgender, while the stable isotopic composition of the hair can, by its connection with food, indicate that someone has moved from one part of the country to another.
An expert in the art of naming corpses, Black has been involved in a myriad of cases, from the ‘Limbs in the Loch’ murder to identifying those killed in the 2004 tsunami. So it’s no surprise that crime writers, including Val McDermid, have come to him for advice.
Black’s life has also contained darkness: she has already revealed that she was raped as a child. Still, she’s clear that’s not what drove her to pursue a career in forensics.
On the contrary, she says, her fascination with anatomy was natural after a childhood spent skinning rabbits and plucking pheasants shot by her beloved father, with forensics offering a way to connect anatomy to the larger world. wide.
Understanding what’s human and what’s not, Black said, is crucial.
“The last thing you want to do is launch a murder investigation and it turns out to be a piece of ribs from a local takeout,” she said.
Black says she copes with the heartbreak of her job by closing a psychological door on her job at the end of the day.
“The big fear, of course, and it’s a fear for everyone in this business, is that sometimes that door doesn’t close completely,” she said.
One case that has stuck with him is that of a man in Kosovo who lost 11 family members, including eight children, to rocket-propelled grenades.
“He was looking for 11 body bags, each containing a named family member,” Black said.
Such experiences have clearly left their mark.
“To be in the identification of the victims, [you know] there is always the possibility of something happening, always,” she said.
As a result, Black “body-mapped” her daughters, taking birthmark notes and taking fingerprints, toe prints and blood samples. She also discouraged them from having braces as children.
“Part of what’s identifiable about you is the twisting of your teeth,” she says. “I’d much rather your mouth look like a stolen graveyard than Tom Cruise.”
Black says she’s not worried about potential criminals learning a few tricks of the trade from the lectures. On the contrary, she hopes to send a message.
“Most criminals, God bless them, aren’t very smart, that’s why they get caught…they don’t think it applies to them,” Black says. “But,” she adds, “they also need to know that science is out to get them.”