5 things CSI gets right

For Brits, this week sees the return of everybody’s favourite team of armed Police/crime scene/forensic scientist hybrids: the night shift of the Las Vegas Crime Scene Investigation dpt. (UK Channel 5, Tuesdays 9PM). Now entering its 12th season – it’s even been around since ‘seasons’ were called ‘series’ – CSI is the most watched TV programme in the world; has spawned two popular, increasingly ridiculous, spin-offs; and has generally found a way to make laborious lab work seem sexy, with demand for university places in forensic science increasing in both the UK and the USA. But CSI has also taken flack for promoting an overly romantic view of lab life: “Where’s my breakthrough, eh?” frustrated lab colleagues often ask, pipetting angrily.

So what have the CSI team, now headed by Ted Danson, actually got right?

1. Lab technique.

I can’t comment on their evidence gathering; I’m not sure if it’s possible to take a perfect thumb print impression off an apple. I expect it varies from apple to apple. Nor can I comment on the improbable nature of some of their kit. What I can say is that the “labby-bits” in CSI are surprisingly well-observed. Liquid (which isn’t always brightly coloured) is pipetted into tubes using pipettes with pipette tips; bubbles are kept to a minimum. Elsewhere lids are shut on centrifuges and mass spectrometers and microscope slides are carefully handled, albeit with immaculate hair.

2. Mood music.

Cover to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: Secret Identity #5
CSI Greg Sanders (Eric Szmanda) gives a pipetting master class.
CSI has always needed music. Every montage of DNA purification, every PCR (a way to make more DNA in a sample) and every searched database has a soundtrack. Possibly because lab work can be as monotonous to actually do as it is to watch, labs around the world may well grind to a halt if it weren’t for iPods or Spotify. Season 12 of CSI features primo-pianist Ludovico Einaudi (perfect for maintaining a calm head as a bottle of bacteria spills down your inside leg) and Van Halen (whose new album, aside from being brilliant, is ideal for keeping the desk-based scientist awake during hours of eye-watering analysis).

3. Colourful Characters.

One of the first observations I made as the swipe doors of academia closed behind me was that all the stereotypes are, in fact, true. So, in life as on CSI you’ll find the alpha males and females; the sporty types; the young spiky lab rats; even the ridiculously cool ones, some with a patronising tendency to explain basic science to each other (which on CSI simply comes across as helpful for the casual viewer: not once did Grissom ever say to Warrick “I know what happens when Luminol reacts with blood, you cocky sod; I showed you!”) Of course, you actually find even less believable characters in real life, but it’s probably best to discover those for yourself.

4. Immense Frustration.

CSI would be pretty dull if for 11 of the 23 episodes Nick Stokes was filmed repeating the same DNA extraction (with the same Massive Attack CD playing) and then for three minutes of episode 12, banging his head against a lab bench after realising he forgot the label his samples. But CSI still manages to capture the frustration of pursuing a fruitless dead-end. In the lab there is a lot of “down-time”: the awkward 16 minutes between stages in the lab, too long for one cup of tea not enough for two. This leads to practical jokes, gross misuse of Sharpies on colleagues’ possessions (it washes off with ethanol) and the lingering feeling that not only could a monkey do certain aspects of your job, he would be able to carry more tubes at once, and still be grinning at the end of the day.

5. The thrill of the chase.

The drama of CSI might be abbreviated and embellished, but it’s a story of weeks squeezed into an hour. It’s a picture painted in short strokes. The evidence is, nevertheless, put together piece by frustrating piece. Real science results aren’t all high-speed pursuits and fire-fights (unless they are and no-one’s inviting me) but it’s still about a chase. Piece by piece a picture emerges, something no-one else has seen before… if you can hold your nerve, and stick with it, it may well feel as satisfying as putting on a pair of shades at the end of a case.

Missed anything? Feel free to add yours or comment below…

Durnal, E. (2010). Crime scene investigation (as seen on TV) Forensic Science International, 199 (1-3), 1-5 DOI: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2010.02.015

Cole, Simon A. and Dioso-Villa, Rachel, Investigating the ‘CSI Effect’ Effect: Media and Litigation Crisis in Criminal Law (April 1, 2009). Stanford Law Review, Vol. 61, No. 6, 2009. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1401417


Article by John Ankers

March 13, 2012

Doctor John Ankers is a researcher at the University of Liverpool Institute of Integrative Biology. He can normally be found in a darkened room using time-lapse fluorescence microscopy to look at the inner workings of cancer cells and/or sleeping. He has exhibited with The Royal Society and won the BSCB science writing prize in 2011. He currently writes freelance for the MRC’s Biomedical picture of the day and blogs about the dark world inside cells at toomanylivewires. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnnyAnkers

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6 thoughts on “5 things CSI gets right”

  1. I like your article and I agree with a lot of what you say.

    One point of language that I think could be a bit better: I htink that readers who know what “a technique to amplify DNA smaples” means are likely to know what PCR is. Maybe you could use something like “a way to make a lot of DNA from a small amount quite quickly”.

      1. I like that philosophy!

        How about: “every PCR (a way to make more DNA in a sample)”

        This of course assumes your readers know what DNA is (safe enough I think).

          1. Now we’re definitely getting technical. Grammatically, I think “in” is fine.
            Biologically speaking, I guess it would depend at what stage in the purification/amplification process you stop calling your pellet your “sample”.

            And Stu, I’d be very pleased to help out with subbing.

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