Sunday, May 10, 2009

CSI: Crime Sand Investigation

A nonfiction book about sand?

Surprisingly, it’s very interesting.

Sand: The Never Ending Story proves that there is indeed a world of knowledge in a grain of the stuff.

The author, Michael Welland, covers the topic not only on this world but beyond, to Mars and one of Saturn’s moons, Titan. But what intrigued me the most was geological forensics, how the properties of a particular sand can be used to determine its origin point, valuable evidence in a criminal investigation.

One case involved $3 million worth of gold that turned up missing while being shipped. It was discovered after opening the crates that ordinary sand and iron bars had been switched with the gold. It was suspected that the substitution had been made in Canada but a forensic geologist and policeman determined that the sand originated in another country.

Another example of sand forensics involved a pickup truck driven by the murderer. Mud splashed on the truck contained tiny debris from a quarry. This debris washed downstream in a river, diluting as it traveled along, blending in with other sand and mud. When the river was low the quarry sand would end up in sandbanks along the rivers’ edge. Sandbanks further downstream had fewer of the distinctive grains; each location had its own mixture. Sand from the crime scene matched what was found on the pickup.

Welland also mentions that during World War II that balloons carrying incendiary bombs were falling on the United States (the fugo balloons which I posted about before). From where were they being launched?

The balloons used ballast bags filled with sand to maintain height as part of an automatic altitude regulation system. Hydrogen or sand would be released as the balloon drifted towards the US.

The US Geological Survey’s Military Geology Unit was called in to ID the origin point of the sand. Using prewar geological reports the granular investigators were able to determine two locations on the east coast of Japan. Air photographs helped to target hydrogen factories at those sites for destruction.


X. Dell said...

Fascinating. So much info in something so mundane.

Ray said...

Somewhere around here I have a niche book about the history of windows (the glass viewing structures, not Bill Gates buggy OS) and another one devoted to boomerangs. I have to dig them out someday.


Doug said...

I wonder if these techniques could help determine from where this sand that is in my eyes in the morning.

They want to blame it on a so-called "sandman" but that seems a bit obvious...

Ray said...


Sand in your eyes? Well, overdo the tequila, pass out on the beach, and guess what happens? Shorely, the answer is obvious.