What You Know Can Help You – A Background in Building Blocks

Scientists often perform their jobs in an objective, dispassionate manner that belies the excitement bubbling beneath the surface. Especially when they’re on the verge of a breakthrough or when their current test could be the deciding factor in proving a hypothesis or solving a case.

As discussed recently in another post about fibers and electron microscope examination, it takes a bit of work and a stringent process to examine and evaluate evidence. Especially in cases where findings might affect profits, public perception and even people’s freedom.

For today’s column, we’re taking a moment to understand the skills and mindset that’s necessary when trying to prove or disprove a hypothesis. Specifically, how much training and knowledge must exist for the scientists at Analytical Answers to come up with their often groundbreaking findings related to materials investigations.

To be clear, the folks at Analytical Answers aren’t private eyes or that type of detective. They don’t carry badges – beyond the ones that identify them in the lab – and while they aren’t running to apprehend bad guys they do catch substitute products, counterfeit goods and outright frauds. In fact, the team at Analytical Answers is wielding advanced equipment to make discoveries, prove theories and deliver comprehensive reports to a wide range of customers.


Perhaps it’s most effective to paint a picture of the typical day at Analytical Answers Laboratory in Woburn, MA.


Gotcha. There is no such thing as a typical day. But many of the cases at the lab involve some of the same steps, investigational techniques, use of equipment and background knowledge to garner a clear result. Specifically, the forensic analysis of each sample that arrives at the lab depends on the type of material, the source and the circumstances surrounding the collection of the sample.

From there, the equipment that will most effectively image the sample is determined and a plan of attack is discussed. But none of this could take place if the knowledge wasn’t in place as a foundation for each of the specialists on staff. Suffice it to say that without prior information and experience, any future examination and hypothesis is worthless. And there are myriad factors to consider.


For instance, here’s a laundry list of items and questions a scientist has to consider when she is first assigned a project…


What is the material suspected to be?

Where did it come from – best guess based on business or environment?

Is the sample manmade or natural?

Is there a danger that it might degrade under certain processes?

How much sample material is available for testing (if the lab is testing the age of a Renaissance canvas, the goal is to use as little as possible because testing often destroys the sample material)?

What impurities might be present?

What other elements might be part of the sample that could adversely affect the testing?

Is there a half life or lifespan of the material even without testing?

What was the chain of custody of the sample?

What steps were taken to ensure unadulterated quality of the material?

Is it a business problem to be solved?

Is it a criminal investigation?

Are insurance companies and lawyers involved (which necessitates additional procedures and documentation)?

Is the material suspected to be volatile or unstable or unsafe?

What timeframe does the lab have to do its studies and examinations?


And the questions continue…each query informed by experience and a sincere desire to work under the best conditions possible to examine and evaluate materials in the lab.

Ultimately, the scientific process doesn’t occur in a vacuum (unless it actually occurs in a vacuum). When a specific method or test has been successful in the past on a similar material to the one that just arrived at the lab, the inclination is to head down that road first. Working with known factors often makes the process move faster and can help the team reach clearer results.

As an example, if an image of a sample provided by one of the lab’s electron microscopes is not entirely clear, it’s prudent to take the sample and look at it with a second piece of equipment. And if necessary a third. The compiling of information and building of images results in a better understanding of what a material is, where it came from and how it came to be where it wasn’t supposed to be.

A really simple overview of the Analytical Answers process might be stated as: really smart scientists examining materials and their building blocks to determine from whence they came and how they are behaving in the real world.

Stay with us for future blog posts where we get more specific about actual data that can be gleaned with the skilled use of imaging and analytical technology combined with human experience and ingenuity. That’s what’s going on behind the laboratory doors at Analytical Answers.

Right now you can see how other mysteries were solved by visiting the Analytical Answers video archives.


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