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Bringing Sherlock-Era Forensic Science To Life

OPB | Oct. 25, 2013 midnight | Updated: Oct. 25, 2013 3:24 p.m.

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OMSI educator Kristi Falkowski tests for potentially poisonous plant alkaloids to demonstrate one of the crime-fighting techniques emerging in the era of Sherlock Holmes.

OMSI educator Kristi Falkowski tests for potentially poisonous plant alkaloids to demonstrate one of the crime-fighting techniques emerging in the era of Sherlock Holmes.

Dan Sadowsky / OPB

Under a spot of light in her makeshift laboratory, Kristi Falkowski wriggles her hands into a pair of rubber gloves, slips on a pair of safety glasses and uncaps a small bottle of liquid reagent. She inserts an eyedropper, pinches it full and squirts the orange-tinted fluid into a test tube that already contains a solution made from a suspicious substance found at the scene.

She mixes the two by gently shaking the tube as a train whistle blasts in the distance. Within seconds, sediment falls to the bottom. That means the substance, she explains to curious onlookers, could be poisonous.

Displays on Victorian-era botany, ballistics, printing and more fill a would-be London train station in the time of Sherlock Holmes in OMSI's new exhibit on the fictional detective.

Displays on Victorian-era botany, ballistics, printing and more fill a would-be London train station in the time of Sherlock Holmes in OMSI's new exhibit on the fictional detective.

Dan Sadowsky / OPB

Falkowski’s chemistry experiment takes place several times a week inside OMSI’s new Sherlock Holmes exhibit, in an area designed to resemble a train station in turn-of-the-19th-century London. It’s one of a dozen demonstrations that OMSI staff and volunteers will perform throughout the two-floor exhibit, which is filled with interactive displays on Victorian-era forensic science, artifacts from the archives of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a setup of the fictional detective’s 221B Baker Street sitting room and an interactive mystery for guests to solve.

As the senior science educator at OMSI, Falkowski is tasked with coming up with captivating demonstrations and hands-on science activities that add a face-to-face dimension to an exhibit’s displays, artifacts and interactives.

“There is a difference between engaging with an exhibit and engaging with a person,” says Falkowski, who joined OMSI after graduating from Portland State in 2005. “We try to create more opportunities for interaction with the content, especially for younger audiences.”

Handcuffs from turn-of-the-19th-century London are one of many objects from the era of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on display.

Handcuffs from turn-of-the-19th-century London are one of many objects from the era of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on display.

Dan Sadowsky / OPB

Falkowski worked in several OMSI departments before finding her niche producing demonstrations and corresponding facilitation guides for about three exhibits a year. She describes the job as “kind of like being in college all the time, cramming for midterms.” And each of those midterms isn’t a written exam, but a handful of interactive presentations.

Her most recent assignment was especially satisfying. Falkowski got hooked on Doyle’s famous sleuth in sixth grade, when she read “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.”

“There’s great adventure in there,” she recalls. “It made a real impression.”

A desk in the sitting of room of 221B Baker Street, as envisioned by the designers of The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes.

A desk in the sitting of room of 221B Baker Street, as envisioned by the designers of The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes.

Dan Sadowsky / OPB

To figure out ways to hook a new generation on Sherlock Holmes, Falkowski reread the entire canon — 56 short stories and four novels — and spent hours researching the history of forensic science. She also tapped the minds of in-house physics and chemistry experts, and leaned heavily on crime historian E.J. Wagner, author of The Science of Sherlock Holmes, a consultant to the exhibit.

She came up with a dozen ways to pique visitors’ interest in forensic science and prep them for the final section of the exhibit, where a palm-sized handbook guides visitors through several London locales in search of clues to the mysterious disappearance of the wife and daughter of a visiting American botanist.

Here are three of Falkowski’s demonstrations:

Victorian-era scientists tested chemical compounds for poison by checking for the presence of alkaloids.

Victorian-era scientists tested chemical compounds for poison by checking for the presence of alkaloids.

Dan Sadowsky / OPB

Detecting Possible Poisons: “In the days of Sherlock Holmes, poisons were a really good way to off someone,” says Falkowski, “but they had no good test for them.” What did exist was a way to detect alkaloids, a compound found in plants that can be toxic. Falkowski developed a test-tube experiment that uses a popular reagent of the period to test for alkaloids in four pantry staples: coffee, tonic water, poppyseeds and red pepper flakes.

The Power Of Observation: “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear,” Holmes tells Watson in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” To spotlight Holmes’ preternatural observational skills, Falkowski devised a so-called “pocket demonstration” — designed to be performed with people waiting in line — where guests are shown a photograph of a busy London street scene from the late 1800s. Then, with the photo out of sight, they’re quizzed on details of what they saw. Falkowski was surprised to learn through her research that “you can actually train yourself to be a better eyewitness. It’s something you can practice and challenge yourself on.”

Handwriting Match: A ransom note is left at a crime scene. Pens and a grocery list are found in the suspect’s home. Guests conduct a chemical experiment to test for an ink match, and use a magnifying glass to compare penmanship. The then-emerging science of handwriting comparison was another of Holmes’ favorite forensic tools. (Holmes also famously used handwriting to deduce personality traits, but Falkowski sticks to using it to verify authorship.)

The crime scene in a new Sherlock Holmes mystery developed for the exhibit.

The crime scene in a new Sherlock Holmes mystery developed for the exhibit.

Dan Sadowsky / OPB

Falkowski anticipates tweaking some of the demonstrations based on how they fare with visitors, then finalizing two handbooks that will travel with the exhibit when it heads to the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio in January.

She hopes her work pulls younger visitors into the Sherlockian orbit. “I hope they take away a sense of wonder, that they’ll read the stories and look at them through the lens of science,” she says. “The way Sherlock thinks is a great way to analyze your world.”

Editor’s note - Oct. 25, 2013: A previous version of this article referred to graphology, or handwriting analysis, as the basis for Falkowski’s handwriting match demonstration. The correct term is handwriting comparison, a forensic science used by questioned document examiners.

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