Ideas for Chemistry FM radio programmes for science week 2010

Nathan Gray, an MA student studying Science and Environmental Journalism, is funded by one of our project bursaries to help develop the radio programmes for Science Week. He’s decided upon five programmes and has drafted up the following for comment among the project team. It’s still under discussion but provides a good idea of what to expect. In his own words…


There will be five radio programmes, each lasting roughly 15 minutes. Each programme will have a key theme that holds together the information within the programme.

  • Background information on the topic
  • interview(s) with figures of authority in the field
  • real life applications of the technology
  • case studies
  • finishing with a summary of key facts that can be related back to the intro/hook from the beginning of the programme.

The five programmes will give examples of famous cases from forensic science past. Using ‘case studies’ of:

Possibly famous murders (using different poisons to explain different bits of forensic chemistry), and even some cases of false cases/contamination (eg. Phantom of Heilbronn, or Barry George?). Each programme covers one case study in depth, introducing the problem, figures of authority to help solve the problem, background science, account of the real life case & conclusion.

1. Murder by Poison

Case Study(s): TWO CASES FROM MOLECULES OF MURDER: Litvienenko & Polonium, + 1 other – organic substance??

Order: What happened in each case, what chemical/drug/poison was used, the science bit, how case was solved.

Areas of Chem covered/explained Radiation, Isotopes, Structure of Organic Particles (depending on second example), Testing for chemicals/radiation in body (autopsy),

Key Contacts for Interview: John Emsley, Scotland Yard Counter Terroism (dealt with Litvinenko case initially), Health Protection Agency (HPA), Other people involved in recent cases?

How to commit the perfect murder

Litvinenko timeline

Possible Q’s for interviewees

  • What happened in the Litvinenko case?
  • Why were suspicions of poisoning raised?
  • Why did it take so long take so long to figure out Litvinenko was not poisoned by Thallium, but actually was suffering from radiation poisoning?
  • Explanation of what radiation poisoning actually is?

2. DNA Profiling

Case Study(s): Case where somebody was convicted of murder & later released when DNA evidence proved innocence. – There are several stories of this in the US, but cannot find anything in the UK as yet? The more local the better?

Areas of Chem covered/explained: DNA Profiling, Methods of testing, ?

Key Contacts for Interview: Prof. Sir Alec Jeffery’s (developed genetic fingerprinting techniques). Police Involved in case? Person that was wrongfully convicted? Coroner, ‘Expert witnesses’. Staff & research students @ university re: testing methodology. National DNA Database,

Possible Q’s for interviewees:

  • What happens when forensic evidence that is used to prosecute somebody turns out to be wrong. Misinterpreted or contaminated evidence.
  • What is contamination? Why might it happen? Is it a big problem?
  • The use of genetic information to ‘prove’ innocence or guilt in criminal investigations…
  • What is DNA profiling? How does it work? Is it reliable?
  • What does DNA profiling involve – Taking samples, DNA isolation, Amplification by PCR, Testing the DNA – matching?
  • How is the ‘match’ tested?
  • How hard/easy is it to get reliable, non-contaminated DNA evidence from a crime scene?
  • How the NDNAD is run, (possibly looking into the ethics/morals of DNA databases?).

Anecdotes of cases where people convicted? Also from cases of contaminated evidence etc E.G Birmingham 6 & ‘Phantom of Heilbronn’.

3. Life of a Forensic Toxicologist

Case Study(s): Follow a forensic toxicologist, what sort of cases do forensics deal with regularly? Is it all Glitz & glamour – talk about standard cases of dugs overdose testing, plus possibly other sorts of investigations, such as testing @ crime & fire scenes. Death’s from drug overdose/CO poisoning etc.

Areas of Chem covered/explained: Chemical Structure of drugs/fire accelerants/explosives etc – Organic Chem. Any other ideas to tie in?

Key Contacts for Interview: Gail Cooper

Possible Q’s for interviewees:

  • What would a ‘normal’ day in forensics involve?
  • What sort of cases are the most common in your experience?
  • Why are these sorts of chemicals so dangerous? (In response to common cases).
  • Stories/Anecdotes of cases (local of famous?)
  • How we can tell if somebody has been using drugs from trace evidence on them?
  • How we can test for signs of drug use by measuring secondary metabolites that are made in our bodies when we take drugs?
  • What are some of the techniques/procedures you use in day to day forensics (using anecdotes as an example to discuss various analytical tests – need some examples of these tests to get started!)

4. Forensic Entomology

Case Study(s): Example case where entomology was used to solve crime investigation Suggestions welcome! – Maybe Dorothy can suggest a good case study for this programme?

Areas of Chem covered/explained: Chemical attractants for incests? Signs of decay? Any other ideas to tie in?

Key Contacts for Interview: Dr. Dorothy Gennard

Possible Q’s for interviewees:

  • What is entomology?
  • Why is it important?
  • What can we tell about a body/scrime scene from the types of insects there?
  • How can you tell that sort of thing?

5. Canine Detection

Case Study(s): Drugs bust? Arson Story? Suggestions welcome!

Areas of Chem covered/explained: Structure of hydrocarbons and other chemicals, Any other ideas to tie in? Aromatic Compounds?

Key Contacts for Interview: Dave Coss

Possible Q’s for interviewees:

  • What are detection dogs mainly used for?
  • Why are they used?
  • Are there other methods of detection of chemicals that can be used at crime scenes?

General thoughts…

I’ve been having a think about ‘regular’ guests for each show; I think it would be very useful to have somebody (possibly staff or student from chem. Dept) as almost a resident expert / co presenter who can explain some of the more complicated bits of chemistry. –

I am happy to do the majority of presenting if needed, however would need assistance in fact/checking proof reading of my explanations for some of the more complicated areas, so it might make sense if anyone was willing? Again just an idea, your thoughts/input welcome.

A Possible Series introduction…

Every time we come into contact with something there is a trace; we are constantly leaving evidence of contact with other people, objects and substances.

However it is only recently that science has been able to accurately identify such small clues.

Science & Technology now provide the police and legal system with masses of information from forensic techniques.

In this programme, we will take a look at …

Notes on Structure of a Factual Science Programme

  • WOW! Fact. Something that will initially grab the attention of the audience.
  • Pose an interesting question, about something loosely related to the first fact.
  • Offer a brief answer to the question? An introduction to the ‘detail’ of the show.
  • Case Study 1 – Example that gives an intro to some detail
  • Relate back to Q
  • Interview?
  • Case Study 2 – Second example, that possibly builds on the first
  • Interview(s)
  • Relate back to subject
  • Summary

‘Three act structure in documentary’

Act 1 – Set Up – Inciting Incident – An Event upsets the world/somebody that sets them on some sort of ‘quest’ or desire. Offers a central Question

Act 2 – Conflict/Progressive Complication – Person involved faces obstacles in their ‘quest’. Pursuit of the central question.

Act 3 – Conclusion – ‘quests ’darkest hour @ a final obstacle, Ups the Suspense, Supreme effort helps them reach Goal. Highest emotional point, answers central question.