Disaster science

Articles about explosives, surveillance, and prosthetics followed tragedies in Boston, Texas

As is often the case after bombings and explosions, a steady stream of science stories seeking to explain the mechanics of what happened—and what’s being done about it—has flowed from the tragedies in Boston and West, TX last week.

After authorities recovered remnants a press cooker they believe was used in the bombs at the Boston Marathon last Monday, a number of reports explained how the appliances can be rigged to kill and what crime scene investigators are doing to learn more about the explosives that were used.

One of the best on-scene narratives was a piece for The New Yorker’s new science and tech blog, Elements, by Paige Williams, an award-winning writer who teaches journalism at Harvard and lives in Boston’s South End, less than a mile from where the bombs went off. She took a walk to the cordoned off area with Dr. Adam B. Hall, a forensic chemist and former crime-scene analyst for the Massachusetts State Police who teaches at Boston University. Along the way, he explained what detectives would most likely be looking at, from the sound, smell and color of the explosions, to shrapnel and other relics.

Associated Press science reporter Seth Borenstein filed a similar article from Washington that featured the expert commentary of Denny Kline, a former FBI explosives expert and instructor in forensics at its academy, and Matthew Horace, a former special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Other notable dispatches included, “Why Use a Pressure Cooker to Build a Bomb?” from NPR, “What Are ‘Pressure Cooker’ Bombs and Why Do Terrorists Use Them?” from The New York Times (filed by a correspondent in New Delhi who discusses their use by militants in Middle East and Asia), and a video, “How Does the FBI Conduct a Bomb Investigation?” from The Wall Street Journal.

Another major theme of the coverage was surveillance—both what it can do to thwart bombings and what it can do to bring perpetrators to justice when that fails.

On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal ran well paired articles on page six, for instance. The first highlighted some of the advanced technologies that authorities use to “prevent and investigate plots,” including surveillance cameras that can read license plates, sensors that can detect chemical and radiological material, “communication hubs that link local, state and federal agencies during a crisis.” The second described how law enforcement is capitalizing on the “citizen surveillance” enabled by proliferation of photos and videos from cell phones.

The tech magazine IEEE Spectrum also had a good piece headlined, “Boston Marathon: Can Technology Do a Better Job of Finding Bombs?”

Once authorities announced that they had found what the The New York Times called “clear video images of two potential suspects,” however, a few reports zeroed in on facial recognition technology. According to the Times:

The F.B.I. has been working for several years to create a facial recognition program, and the video of a suspect or suspects could be matched against the bureau’s database of mug shots of about 12 million people who have been arrested, officials said.

Greta van Susteren brought up facial recognition briefly on Fox News, asking an expert about its precision, but Allison Steele had a more thorough evaluation of the technology’s reliability and how it works at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

In the end, though, it didn’t take any fancy software to flush to out Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged bombers. According to The New York Times’s Michael S. Schmidt and Eric Schmit reported the FBI’s decision to release photos of the brothers to the public was the “turning point” in the investigation. They later explained that:

As investigators intensified their search for clues, the investigation’s focus shifted in the last two days from a manhunt that relied heavily on cutting-edge surveillance technology to help track down the suspects to more traditional investigative methods. Those approaches include interviews with friends, relatives and others who knew the suspects and examinations of computers, phones, writings and their possessions.

Late Thursday night, the Tsarnaev brothers went on a rampage that ended in a shootout with police in Watertown, MA, just west of Boston. Tamerlan, who was older, was killed, but Dzhokhar escaped and evaded capture until Friday evening when he was discovered hiding in a tarp-covered boat in a backyard nearby.

The final showdown didn’t produce much in the way of science writing, but countless outlets carried a video taken by a helicopter that used thermal imaging to verify that Tsarnaev was in the boat. In addition to his glowing, huddled form, the clip shows the police using a robot to tear the tarp away while throwing non-lethal flash-bang grenades to stun the suspect. In the end, it was hostage negotiator that reportedly convinced Tsarnaev to surrender.

While Bostonians celebrated the brothers’ demise, the healing process is only beginning for those injured in the bombings, however, and in the days after the explosions, many news outlets produced stories about advances in prosthetics and what they could do to help those who lost limbs. Many of them noted that a lot has been learned in the effort to treat soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. As The New York Times reported:

Over the past decade, prosthetic technology has advanced significantly, with computerized knees and ankles that adjust to terrain and activity. Lighter and more malleable materials have allowed amputees to wear synthetic legs longer — and even run marathons. And devices have been customized for a dizzying array of activities, from golfing and skiing to scuba diving, backpacking and even rock climbing.

Perhaps most significantly, doctors know more about treating and salvaging limbs, making recovery faster than a decade ago.

Other stories about prosthetics came from The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, and WBEZ public radio in Chicago, and Sports Illustrated.

The Associated Press and USA Today had related articles about the critical role that tourniquets played in saving lives following the Marathon bombings, just as they have in the war zones of the Middle East and Asia. And the Times had articles about the effective triage system set up in Boston hospitals following the bombings and about how doctors employed knowledge gleaned from military surgeries to treat the wounded.

If that’s not enough, Scientific American has what is undoubtedly the largest collection of scientifically-oriented stories abut the marathon bombings. There are stories about all the topics above as well as more unique pieces about crowd psychology and efficient telecommunications during times of emergency.

Unrelated to the bombings in Boston, an explosion at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas last Wednesday night, which killed at least 14 people and injured 200, prompted a slew of articles explaining why fertilizer (which was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing) can be so explosive.

As Slate, The New Yorker, LiveScience.com, and other outlets explained, the key is ammonium nitrate, an inexpensive chemical that is added to fertilizer to improve its nitrogen content, an essential nutrient for plants, which can explode violently when it comes into contact with a flame or other ignition source.

Just explanations are usually of tertiary concern when authorities and law enforcement officials are still trying to assist the injured and to restore a sense of security and calm. By helping people understand the physics and chemistry of what happened, however, they are all part of making sense of the senseless.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: ,