GELFAND’S WORLD--The Golden State Killer, aka the East Area Rapist, appears to have been identified and arrested. News reports are full of the fact that it was DNA identification that finally caught up with him. In listening to this news, there was something about the story that tweaked my sense of irony. This man's criminal career began before DNA was used to identify criminals, and his murderous career parallels in time the development of the DNA technology that eventually led to his arrest.
When he started his crime spree, he was careful not to leave fingerprints, but would not have known to avoid leaving his DNA. We are entitled to take note of the coevolution of DNA technology, its function in the criminal justice system, and this week's immediate aftermath.
As the news media are telling us, the alleged killer was a Viet Nam veteran who briefly served as a police officer in the mid-1970s. He was fired from the force and, it would appear, has been retired from his life of vicious criminal predation since at least as far back as the late1980s.
Aside: DNA is a long polymer formed of four different types of subunits that are usually referred to by the first letters of their names -- A, G, T, and C. Some writers who don't know much about chemistry (or maybe they just don't know much about writing) say that DNA is formed of these four letters. But in actuality, the letters just represent chemicals with names such as adenosine and guanosine. The reason that the letters come in handy is that DNA is a linear sequence of those four chemical subunits. The whole structure consists of two strands wound together in the double helix -- a fact that has become known to every school child by now.
Since the double helices interact with each other in a specific kind of way -- A's pair with T's and G's pair with C's, the length of a DNA fragment is referred to by the number of such opposing pairs. In technical jargon, we refer to the length of a DNA fragment in terms of nucleotide pairs or, in abbreviated fashion, as base pairs.
In the early 1970s when the Golden State Killer was about to get his start, the knowledge of DNA structure wasn't much more than I've described above. Science knew that the double helix was the overall structure and that it was made of lots of those four different chemical subunits, but nobody knew anything more. The actual sequence of the base pairs was not known, even for specific genes, where this knowledge would have been of great interest at the time.
In 1977, Maxam and Gilbert (from Harvard) introduced a method for determining the sequences of DNA fragments using chemical methods. It was a bit laborious to say the least, but all of a sudden, labs all over the world were cranking out gene sequences from bits and pieces of DNA at a rate of two or three hundred base pairs per experiment. Given a few weeks, a dedicated researcher could determine the sequence of a whole gene.
Right after Maxam and Gilbert's method of sequencing came on line, Frederick Sanger at Cambridge University introduced his own version of DNA sequencing. Sanger's methodology was a little more practical in the long run, because it led to automated sequencers that could crank out sequences at much higher rates.
From the standpoint of medical science (and that new buzz-term called personalized medicine), it would take the next generation of sequence technology to allow modern research labs to begin to consider using your own DNA sequence as a way of diagnosing and then fixing what ails you. It's starting to happen.
But for crime fighting, it's not necessary to sequence entire genomes.
Here's the complication: Every one of your cells has two copies of your DNA, and each copy consists of about threebillionbase pairs. In the early days of DNA sequencing, one technician solving 300 base pairs in an experiment would have had to do about ten million such experiments to solve one human genome. Since each such experiment takes several hours, the solution to the human genome sequence wouldn't have been practical as a crime fighting tool or even as a medical tool.
Here's the solution: For crime fighting, you don't need the whole sequence. It turns out that there are parts of the human genome that are short enough (and variable enough from one person to the other) that they can be used as a sort of biochemical fingerprint.
These variable sequences are, in total, a small fraction of one percent of the genome.
Not only that, but the laborious methodology that was introduced in the 1970s has given way to procedures that require less physical dexterity on the part of the technician -- and they are quicker. The technique we now refer to as DNA Fingerprinting has nothing to do with actual fingerprinting, but works just as well.
What was frustrating about this case is that the investigators long ago learned (by DNA) that the Bay Area Rapist and a criminal who committed rapes in the Santa Barbara area were one and the same. The problem is that they didn't have a match with any known person (criminal or otherwise) who might have been found in a DNA data base.
Something happened to connect this long-ago and unknown killer with the current suspect, but as of this moment it is an untold story. What we do know is that investigators recently made it their mission to collect a sample of DNA from the suspect and in this way, they connected a specific man to the old evidence.
What's also interesting about the news bulletins inundating us these past few hours is how DNA is being viewed as an established technology -- i.e.: one that is treated more as proof positive than as just another questionable bit of evidence. Eye witnesses can be wrong, and defense lawyers understand that fact. Fingerprints are generally right, but they can be hard to find in some crime scenes (burglars wear gloves).
Many of us remember the way that the OJ Simpson defense team did its best to discredit the prosecution's DNA findings. That argument seems to have been rendered passe.
It was interesting to see the responses of former victims and their relatives, who treated the news of the DNA identification as closure.
We can expect an outpouring from politicians of sympathy for the victims and congratulations to law enforcement. These are completely appropriate in this case. But I suspect that a lot of politicians will fail to connect this criminal justice triumph with the many years of science that went into it. They will ignore all the careful, hard work that went into that science and fail to credit its inventors. Bloviating politicians will treat the microscopic chemical known as DNA as absolute proof of guilt, but on another, equally scientific subject, will pretend that Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere has no known effects.
Has this guy appointed anybody of substance?
Dr Ronny Jackson seemed like a nice enough fellow when he pronounced Donald Trump fit as a fiddle after the presidential physical exam. Pundits raised questions about how the presidential height was determined (allowing Trump to stay just outside of the range for being officially obese). But you know how those pundits can be. Still, the way that Dr Jackson threw around superlatives seemed a little odd -- odd almost in the way that the previous letter describing Trump's superlative health was. You don't usually wonder whether a doctor making an official pronouncement is outright lying, but there was something a little fishy about how Trump -- who doesn't exercise much, seems to get by without sleep, and gorges on Kentucky Fried calories -- was being talked about as if he were a fit 20 year old. Could the doctor have been acting more like Sarah Huckabee Sanders than like a doctor?
Now all of a sudden, Jackson is under scrutiny because he has been nominated for a cabinet post. It seems that the presidential physician has a few quirks, like handing out pills as if they were candy, getting involved in power plays, and in general having a temper.
These quirks might not have gotten him thrown out of his current job. But when somebody is nominated to run a department that has a politically powerful constituency -- in this case every living American veteran -- Senators are likely to take a close look at the nominee. And at this level, seeming inconsequentials which knocked out other candidates in previous years -- like having had a nanny who wasn't quite legal -- can do damage to a nomination.
Jackson seems to have gotten along with presidents even though he took a few too many drinks from time to time, but apparently that job didn't depend on senatorial approval. This one does. When the Senators taste blood in the water, they swarm.
Oh yeah -- speaking of the VA system having a politically powerful constituency, Jackson seems to lack experience in management. If ever there was an organization that requires management, it's the VA.
At this point in the Trump presidency, it's legitimate to ask the following question: Has there been even one high ranking Trump appointee who would have been appointed by any of the last half dozen presidents? Nixon had a few cabinet level officials who became felons, but they came into the job carrying some credentials. They may have been bad guys, but they didn't start out as complete clowns.
Trump appears to come from a different planet when it comes to appointments. He seems to concentrate on people he knows personally and on hard-right-wingers who share his destructive tendencies. In other words, he appoints people he knows socially and people he has heard of through his ultra-conservative contacts or by watching the Fox channel.
Perhaps it's a bit of a stretch, but it is possible to interpret this mode of behavior as being the result of cognitive decline on Trump's part. It would have been possible to do a national search for a new VA administrator and, out of this, find a few candidates with the skills and knowledge required for running a huge organization that serves millions of vets. It's even easier to do this if you are willing to put competence above personal loyalty. What's scary is that Trump doesn't appear to have the understanding or patience to engage in such an approach.
This interpretation works equally well for Trump's appointment to head the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Nasa has some of the brightest scientists and ablest administrators in the world. This is the group that managed to bounce a ball on the surface of Mars and set loose the Mars Rover. Then they did it again. Nasa has had superb leaders in the past. How good is Trump's nominee? To ask the question is to give the answer.
Correct me if I'm wrong here, but Trump's appointees seem to fall into 3 categories: Total ass kissers, fellow crooks, and total ass kissers who promise to do damage to the New Deal and its offspring. Being a right wing extremist seems to help the nomination process move along.
There has been a bit of push-back about the heads of the EPA and the Department of the Interior, but the resistance is superficially about their misuse of public funds. It's time that some Republicans complain about damage to our system of national parks and monuments.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)