Duke Magazine-Phys 37-Syllabus-Jul/Aug 2002

August 1, 2002

Physics 37
Physics of Forensics

nfortunately for criminals, blood splatters in a discernible pattern, glass fractures tell a story, and a fire can be traced to a match. Mary Creason explains why and, based on that, "who done it."

Her course on the physics of forensics is for anyone who craves solving the mystery, "geared" she says, "toward those students who may not typically enroll in a physical science." The only prerequisite is curiosity. She says the goal is to "familiarize students with the basics of physical principles and apply them in familiar contexts," those often involving a CRASH! BANG! or BLAMMO!, as well as to enable students to become "knowledgeable consumers of science: just how much of this should I believe?"

Newton's laws of motion are explored through actual car accidents. Collisions, energy, and thermodynamics are investigated through explosions, ballistics, and arson in cases both real and contrived, depending on the learning objective. Use of physical and geometric

optics principles are used to analyze glass fractures, latent fingerprint development, and materials composition, with evidence often taken from previous real investigations. And, through collaboration with the art and art history department, authentication of fine art is incorporated in the physical-optics section.

Besides lecture, much of the time is divided between in-class activities relating to analysis of fingerprints, skid marks, and splatter patterns, and the staging of mock trials. Deductive reasoning is required of students placed in the role of investigator.


  • "A Field Guide to Critical Thinking" from the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal website: www.csicop.org/si/9012/critical-thinking.html
  • General resource texts (covering all scientific disciplines)
  • Basic physics readings
  • In-house materials adapted from FBI Law Enforcement Bulletins, the Journal of Forensic Science, and Encylcopedic Firearms sources.
  • Case studies


Evaluation is based on homework assignments, case studies, mid-term and final exams, and the student-written case study. Some case studies are presented as in-class mock trials. All students are evaluated for outside information they bring to the class at some point during the term. This may take the form of current events related to class topics, acting as a litigator or expert witness in a mock trial, or Web-page journal entries (two per week).


Mary Creason is a lecturer and part of the team of faculty that teaches the introductory physics sequences, responsible for training and supporting the teaching assistants in the introductory laboratories. She came to Duke Medical Center in 1992 as a post-doc in the departments of radiation oncology and pharmacology.

"Earlier in my career I worked for a traffic consulting firm looking at traffic accident reconstruction, roadway design, and roadway safety analysis. I also taught at another institution that has a criminal justice program. They asked me to develop a context-rich physics course for their students. The faculty from the criminal justice department were very generous in sharing their knowledge of crime investigation. I have since developed a substantial network of police and fire professionals who are equally generous in sharing advances in crime investigation."

--Patrick Adams