What do forensics and time have to do with each other and our lives?

The wily detective Columbo (played by the late Peter Falk as many of you will remember) is called to the crime scene in the wee hours of the hourly morning.  The pathologist has already examined the body.  Columbo has barely managed to grab a donut and coffee.  His trademark overcoat drapes his body but he has not yet pulled out his cigar.  He looks like he has had a bad night’s sleep.  Wearily he asks the examiner, “What’s the time of death doc?”  “No question about it, the victim died at exactly 12 AM.”  Columbo shuffles his feet a bit and then pulls out and lights his cigar.  He appears to be somewhat disconcerted by the entire crime scene and you know he is beginning one of his famous stories wherein nothing is as it appears to be.  He returns to the examiner and says “Doc, how come you are so certain of the time of death?”  Well, there are three reasons detective.  First, the temperature of the body would indicate an approximate time of death as 3 hours ago.  Since, it is now 3AM that would make the time of death, 12 AM.  Second, the coagulation at the bottom of the victims body would indicate a stoppage of blood flow at about 3 hours ago and finally, the wrist watch on the victims hand is broken and the time the watch stopped is precisely 12 AM.   Is that enough detective?”  Well, that should be conclusive right?  You can’t argue with forensics and science much less a broken wrist watch.  However, as you might have guessed, these seemingly incontrovertible facts only make Columbo more suspicious.  I can hear him thinking, “It’s too pat.”  
The major suspect (of course the victim’s wife) is forty years younger than her spouse and stands to make 40 million dollars should her husband pass away.  These facts, plus the fact that she was known to have a boyfriend on the side, (her husband hired a private detective to trail her and he has these very incriminating photos) point to her motive.  However, the time of death presents a major problem.  She was at a wedding as the maid of honor and had multiple witnesses (400) to testify that she did not leave the wedding until after 2AM.  Her boyfriend (a world famous forensic pathologist who was quite a stud) was also at the wedding with her and was known to have driven her home.  Since she could not have been at the wedding at 12 AM and also killed her husband, it would appear that she was in the clear.  This sets up the drama.  
How can Columbo overcome the time of death and substantiate his gut feelings (which are never wrong) that it was really the wife and her boyfriend and not a random burglar?   Well, that is where the additional knowledge of forensics comes in.  If you would like to know how they “staged” this crime scene to make it look like a 12 AM hit, send me an email, but I will bet that if you watch CSI or any of the documentaries about the Body Farm, you have already figured it out. 
So what do time and forensics have to do with each other?  The answer is obvious, the more clues we have about the time of death, the easier it will be to solve the problem of whom, where and why.  Time is a key factor in the toolbox of the homicide detective.  Time is a process that marks every stage of our lives, but we are often not aware of this.  We can get a sense when we look in the mirror or see an old picture of ourselves and we realize that time has marked us.   But there is another message here as well.  Facts can be manipulated and things are not always as they seem.  We might be old in body but young at heart.  Science does not yet know how to measure the reverse aging that happens as we get wiser and more mature.  We grow younger as we are more open to life and to the changes that life brings.   A quote by the famous General Douglas MacArthur goes as follows:
“Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years. People grow old by deserting their ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up interest wrinkles the soul…You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt, as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear, as young as your hope, as old as your despair.” 
The Columbo shows were always about the common underdog, somewhat bumbling detective (Columbo) who must pit his wits against the super-smart, super-sophisticated, ultra scientific Ubermenschen.  In the end, Columbo always outsmarts the smartest villains.  We all revel in their defeat since inside each of us is this sense of identify with the underdog.  We have all been tyrannized at some point by one of these super-smart people who seem to hold their superiority over us.  Colombo’s victories are victories for the 99% against the 1% and we love it.  We are the 99 percent and we do not have to be losers because we are not the 1 percent.   If you look at MacArthur’s quote, you can see that each of us has the potential to win our victories against life.  No matter how famous, rich, smart, successful or young you are, the meaning of life does not lie in doing or in having but in being.  It is by giving up our dreams and hopes that we lose the battle and not by growing old.  No amount of science or forensics can measure our success in this battle. 
Go on Netflix this week and watch an old Columbo show.  No commercials you know.  Have your ever watched Columbo or CSI?  What does the passage of time each day tell you about your life?  How do you measure the success you have day to day in living a life of your choice?  What could you do to find more ways to dream and hope and love?  Have you quit the battle or are you still in their pitching?  Try reading “Beyond the Body Farm” by Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson. 

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. bgalbreath
    Feb 13, 2012 @ 17:16:09

    “People grow old by deserting their ideals”

    “It is by giving up our dreams and hopes that we lose the battle and not by growing old”

    I love seemingly compelling proverbs that are contrary to each other. (“Look before you leap” vs “He who hesitates is lost”).

    To the above quoted sentiments I would pose another, usually attributed to Churchill: “If you are not a liberal at twenty, you have no heart; if you are not a conservative at forty, you have no brain.”

    MacAuthur proposes that we remain true to our ideals and our dreams. Churchill claims to recognize a proper development through life that entails that we change, that to everything there is its proper season. We want to remain young at heart, but not at the cost of remaining immature children, trapped in concerns and commitments that seemed to make so much sense when we were teenagers but now make less sense in the light of further experience. How much can I change and still be the same person I was? Is there a degree of change that amounts to disloyalty, not just to my erstwhile ideals and dreams, not just to other people, but to myself?



  2. John Persico
    Feb 13, 2012 @ 20:33:48

    Hi Bruce, I was hoping you would come back, I was missing your comments. Were you on vacation? By the way, do I have your email address. I heard it was Shaw who made the quote your refer to but I may be wrong. I also agree I love these apparent contradictions. It just puts a monkey wrench in making life too simple. My question to you harks back to Stirner, is MacArthur and others of this ilk, I think of Ben Franklin and Andre Maurois and many others who talk about the importance of goals and meaning in our lives; are they simply leading us down a road of illusions? I mean can we really get up each morning and have a vision or goal and find meaning in these? Or are we simply fooling ourselves. Do those retired people who get up and golf each day or go to their bridge games each day and then rummy games each afternoon as happy or full of meaning as the rest of us who pursue our goals and dream of success or usefulness?



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