Each episode of the clever and occasionally creepy TV comedy-drama series, Bones, always has a single quest: to solve a homicide. Full of acerbic banter between forensic anthropologist “Bones” and FBI agent, Seeley Booth, this exceedingly popular show is known to make a considerable effort to utilise forensic techniques within its run-time every week.
Like any clever science-themed television series, Bones has a slew of producers and fact-checkers making sure they get every last detail correct. One such fact-checker is the show’s forensic technical advisor and story-boarder, Donna Cline. Despite continually tapping into her repository of forensic pathology books and network of forensic experts, there are evident limitations to what she can do. She spoke to this dilemma in an interview with the magazine WIRED: “We start with reality and we deviate from there.”
Just how much of the show is more science fiction than fact? Like any compelling TV drama, the science in Bones is perhaps not-so-equal parts truth and fantasy.
The crawly side of life
Occasionally, Bones draws on the expertise of insect boffin, Dr Jack Hodgins. He analyses insect larvae in the remains to estimate the time of death. This may sound fanciful, but in fact his portrayal does not veer off from what entymologist do in actual forensic cases. Bugs play a key role in identifying human remains. Different bugs crawl into different parts of the remains at varying times. Hence, the soft, white newly hatched bugs can tell you how long it’s been since the time of death — a matter we’ve written about previously here. Also, the origin of the insect can tell you whether the remains were moved to different locations before they were discovered.
Ahead of herself
Bones’ expertise seems to be pivotal to solving each criminal mystery. It’s true that forensic anthropologists act as consultants for the FBI in homicide cases. They can help determine what caused the person’s death -– a sharp or blunt force or a gunshot, for instance. Yet Bones does that and more: she helps identify the killer. While carefully examining skeletal remains can explain what happens right before the victim’s death — the remains themselves cannot reveal who killed them (although they can reveal an awful lot about what happened, as you’ll find here).
One tool missing
A huge part of a forensic anthropologist’s job is using a well-established molecular biology technique called DNA profiling. Not to be confused with full genome sequencing, this process involves chopping up smaller fragments of DNA which get sent to a laboratory. This is where analysts can decipher a person’s genetic makeup. Still, despite the technique being ubiquitous in the field, many of Bones’ forensic escapades rarely use it.
Forensic anthropologists also frequently use a technique called carbon dating. This is a technique which involves the decay of carbon-14 to estimate the age of organic materials — up to an approximate 62,000 years (how’s that for solving a cold case?) While it is frequently thought to only be relevant to historical cases, new initiatives are emphasising its usage in more recent, contemporary cases. Still, this is probably a technique that is perhaps overemphasised on the TV show — as it isn’t used nearly this often in real-life.
Mixing science and drama
Like many prime-time science-oriented TV dramas, Bones certainly takes its scientific liberties. But this is Hollywood, and it’s a show about human relationships set in the context of forensics. While we’re sure that forensic scientists are no strangers to the occasional office romances — it’s the fine, and not-quite-realistic medley of human drama, humour and science that continue to keep most people’s inner-geeks tuned in.
Your Turn: Are you Bones’ biggest fans? Have you read the books that inspired them? Disagree that it’s not as accurate as one might think? Tell us in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.