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See Inside Scientific American Volume 309, Issue 3

Moriarty They Ain't: Criminally Clumsy Lawbreakers Make Forensics Unnecessary

Not every lawbreaker qualifies as a criminal mastermind
robber and brain



Matt Collins

In a 2004 episode of South Park, the scamps think of themselves as warriors in an anime fantasy. Within that context, Cartman believes he has the power of invisibility—provided he removes all his clothing. He then tiptoes naked out of his constructed reality and into an auction before a large, shocked audience. His delusion is broken when the auctioneer says to him, “Kid, what the hell do you think you're doing?”

I recently discovered that a similar scene had played out in the real world two years earlier, when a man in Tehran hatched a really bad plan that sent him to the can. Like Cartman, our Iranian friend believed himself to be invisible. He was under the impression that he left no impression because he had paid about $500 to a local sorcerer, who in return provided him with spells to induce invisibility. That's according to the Iranian newspaper Jam-e Jam, which I'm appropriating as my hip-hop name. (The British newspaper Metro that picked up the story describes the charlatan as a “wizard imposter.” Pro science tip: in this universe, all wizards are imposters.)

Our gullible friend entered a bank and confidently grabbed money from the customers, who, able to see him clearly, undoubtedly said the Farsi equivalent of “What the hell do you think you're doing?” before knocking him around a little.

I, too, have been convinced I was invisible, often while waiting in a line at an airport or bank, when people blithely walk directly in front of me. But I know that the real invisibility devices scientists have developed are too rudimentary to mask an entire human.

Sure, the Romulans and Klingons had cloaking devices that rendered their ships invisible. Harry Potter had an invisibility cloak that allowed him to vanish. But pretty much the best physicists can do right now is to sweep microwaves around a tiny object instead of letting the waves hit the thing and bounce back. The effect makes the object virtually invisible to any sensory equipment that detects only microwaves. The poor Iranian fellow did not even have one of these gizmos, you know, for moral support.

Such accounts of incompetent criminals have always intrigued me. So when the story of the visible man included a link to another promising example of ineptitude, I naturally pursued the lead. And thus discovered the story of a burglar in Germany who basically gave the local crime scene investigators the day off.

The thief in question, a teenager after a computer, scrupulously left the scene free of fingerprints. He did, however, leave behind one entire fingertip, which he sliced off negotiating with a broken window. The Metro quoted a local law-enforcement official: “We usually find fingerprints at the crime scene, but it's not every day that thieves leave the original there, too.”

That original matched a print on record, and police swiftly arrested the young man. Now, a really good lawyer might have gotten him acquitted by arguing that the print on record no longer matched the rather minimalist version that the teenager now possessed. But the kid saved everyone time and effort by confessing when confronted with his former body part, having been both figuratively and literally fingered by the police.

Just a few days before this issue went to press in early July came a wonderful example of something dumb and possibly criminal, in terms of negligence. Turns out that a Russian rocket had its angular velocity sensors installed upside down. (Pro science tip: this is the opposite of good.) The technology news Web site Ars Technica reported that attempts to correct the flight trajectory based on sensor data (it's going down—make it go up!) actually turned the rocket back toward Earth, where it crashed 32 seconds after liftoff. The rocket was carrying satellites for the Russian GPS system, which does qualify as irony. An investigation is under way. Or possibly over way.

This article was originally published with the title "Through a Glass, Obviously."

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