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I would like for there to be some ambiguity in a character's death in a story I'm writing. Unfortunately, she lives in a universe with 3D scanners that can map out her corpse's molecular density and cellular structure (albeit with a low-ish resolution of 1 micron). The scans need to be precise enough that the data from one, combined with a machine to differentiate arbitrary cells from genetic data, can fully recreate a person (well enough that once printed, they don't feel any different than when they were scanned). The scanner isn't negotiable - I need it for other plot stuff. Obviously, in addition to the scanner, they have access to normal forensic techniques like blood testing.

Specifically, I'd like it to be easy to miss the fact that she was drugged and unconscious at the time of death, the explanation being that the drug had broken down in her system by the time she was scanned (1 day after her death, 2 days after the drug was administered to knock her out. These timescales can be slightly altered if necessary). The drug is fictional and its properties can be adjusted as needed to fit the story. The character's death was due to falling off a cliff, which may involve head trauma that could conceal structural effects of the drug in the brain. For completeness, the cliff is at a very low temperature (~ -20 degrees C), but the character was wearing a thermal suit, so this variable can also be tweaked if it helps.

My ideal scenario is that the scan shows something to make the coroner highly suspicious, but not enough to confirm that she was under, or if he IS certain she was unconscious, he isn't certain which drug was used. Is this plausible?

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    $\begingroup$ There are way too many variables in your question to be able to give a clear answer. I think whatever you want the tech to show is what it would show. one-micron scans of the body are pretty fine, and chemical analysis in such a society would very likely reveal any kind of drug used unless it mimicked a biologically present compound. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Jun 26 at 2:08
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    $\begingroup$ I don't quite get your problem. You told us the drug used is completely fictional and it's properties can be changed depending on what you need, and you need the drug to be able to bypass a scan, ideally via breaking down rapidly. From an outsiders perspective though, I would not be surprised to hear that a person got drunk or even drugged with some friends, went to a high place to enjoy a nice view and accidentally slipped, falling to their death (especially since after a certain height even falling on top of water will make you become a human slurpee), because it is not that uncommon. $\endgroup$ Jun 26 at 3:19
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    $\begingroup$ Okay, that’s a decent answer. The context makes it very suspicious that this person would have any drugs in their system, but I take your point nonetheless. I can see that the consensus is that my restrictions are broad enough that it’s not an issue (which is good news), I just wanted to make sure that my mystery and scanning tech weren’t in direct contradiction. My knowledge of forensics is virtually nonexistent, so I figured I probably missed something $\endgroup$ Jun 26 at 3:28
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    $\begingroup$ Just a note: You cannot reconstruct a person if all you have is a scan with the lousy precision of 1 µm. A living cell has many components which are very much smaller than 1 µm. The point being that the scanner can be used to make an incredibly life-like statue, but it is too coarse to make a living duplicate. Leaving aside "molecular density", at 1 µm resolution the scanner will miss even celular anatomical structures, for example it will miss lots of neural dendrites which often have sub-micron diameters. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 26 at 4:09
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    $\begingroup$ @VentifactsandYardangs: You need a resolution better than 100 nm to reconstruct the connectome. Lots of dendrites have diameters of around 200–250 nm and Nyquist says the sampling rate must be more than twice the highest frequency in the signal. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 26 at 12:49

9 Answers 9

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Confounding variables

The drug could give symptoms similar to other drugs. This can be like poppy seeds. Eat enough and you can get positive drug tests for opium.

Your character seems to do special things, as she has a thermal suit. In many extreme areas it isn't uncommon for (self) drug use to keep people sharp, or helping them rest. It can now be as simple as looking like a relaxant, like alcohol or weed.

It is now a small stepping stone from here to the drug that makes her unconscious. The amount or even a slightly different effect can tip the coroner off. Yet even then you make decisions on that is most common. Is it logical that the character got drugged, or is it more logical that she had a single beer. Maybe it looks like asprin or something. Even with your suspicions you might close the book with the most likely cause, ignoring any tiny red flags.

This option allows you to have any amount of suspicion that you want, but thanks to the uncertainty even with all the facts it can be ignored.

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    $\begingroup$ I failed to mention that this story occurs on an outpost on a remote planet, so most of the suggestions aren't really relevant since they depend on a society being present around the incident. Nevertheless, the dialogue gave me a lot of different perspectives on the issue, so thanks to everyone who answered. I'm going to accept this one in particular since I like the idea that the drug could be confused for a relaxant - it's a nice detail that could obscure the murder while making the coroner suspicious, especially if the relaxant isn't something the victim normally takes. It works well here. $\endgroup$ Jun 26 at 19:43
  • $\begingroup$ Poppy (not sesame) seeds can lead to positive opium test results. youtube.com/watch?v=NFqOSa7u0dA $\endgroup$
    – Dugan
    Jun 27 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Dugan edited. I mix them up as I don't eat them myself. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Jun 27 at 14:16
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The human aspect

/the scan shows something to make the coroner highly suspicious/

The scan shows a piece of plastic in her stomach. Why would she eat plastic? He retrieves the plastic. It is a note from the victim. Scratched into the plastic is "FENT".

Her body has broken down the drug. Her body does not have access to her scarf covering her nose and mouth. Fentanyl persists in the frozen moisture there.

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Just The Scanner:

Given the development of a one micron scanner and nothing else, your drug itself will be undetectable. A proper autopsy will do a lot of chemical analysis to look for drugs. But you have a "perfect" scanner that accurately portrays the physical body down to a bacteria-sized level. It does not, however, tell you anything about chemical composition except by inference.

If we assume advanced computing,

then specific drugs MIGHT leave tell-tale physical changes in the body - or not. We don't know, because we don't have scanners like this, or computers that can look for very fine patterns in those scans. But the scanner itself still can't detect individual chemicals.

If we assume a society where such a scanner exists and fits in,

then it is likely that advanced chemical analysis will be done or at least available well beyond what our current techniques can perform in addition to your micron scanner. Any pre-existing compound is likely to leave specific indicators of what it was and how it killed. But there is always a technological arms race in these things, and it is also likely that compounds exist that people KNOW will mimic others or leave ambiguous traces at best.

SO,

if the murderer is clever, well educated, and deliberate, they could still conceal their crime. If it was a rash act by a desperate criminal, then it is very unlikely they would get away with it unless they are incredibly lucky. In other words, the science can support either conclusion legitimately and have it be plausible. You just need to write the story so it logically concludes the way you want it to.

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The scanner is nearly useless.

The poison affected her brain, causing death from hypoxia. But the cells, to a 1-micron resolution, aren't going to look any different from brain cells deprived of oxygen for any reason. The poison might be any inhalant - halothane, nitrous oxide, even pure nitrogen would work - that can interrupt breathing in sufficiently high doses. But I like the nitrogen - I can picture someone climbing down a long narrow chasm and suddenly the villain, in a breathing mask, pours a massive Dewar of liquid nitrogen onto a large heated environmental area at the bottom. The chasm becomes a chimney of death, and she passes out and falls in a way that looks natural on the highest-resolution spy video. The poison leaves behind nothing but air. But there might be some peculiar up and down spikes on temperature sensors, and the villain has a Dewar he writes a month later had leaked due to a faulty valve.

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Poisoning

There are substances that metabolize away after death within hours. These can not be detected afterward, not even by their effects. Among them is insulin.

A deadly dose of insulin results in coma and death, but the insulin - a molecule of 5808 Da - itself metabolizes away. Insulin is with that size just in the micrometer diameter size, because it is a complex folded molecule. While a full spanning autopsy can detect it nowadays by detecting the specific metabolization products of the synthetic insulin, they require extensive tests besides the blood test - previous samples and a medical record among others. Further, the metabolization will continue after death, so after about 24 hours even the markers you look for will be gone.

With the right poison, even the initial poison is too small - Hydrogenchloride is 127 pm, which is about 4 magnitudes too small!

Destruction/loss of the flesh

Whatever killed the body, the results of it can't remain for the autopsy.

So if the body decomposes or is dissolved before the autopsy, there is nothing to find. Suppose the body is infested directly during or right after death with a strain of very aggressive maggots or other corpse eaters. These result in pushing the decomposition ahead by a couple of days to weeks from the natural progression from the normal rundown. Initiating infestation by maggots within the first hours and good conditions will pretty much fasten the Fresh Corpse (usually up to 72 horus) and Bloated Corpse (up to 5 days after death) steps into Active Decay within just about one to two days. This usually starts only about 3 to 5 days after death and ends about within a few weeks after the death. If conditions speed it to start within the first 24 hours, quite a lot of evidence will be lost.

In the Active stage and later, all the flesh evidence of a body gets destroyed rather quickly, leading up to skeletonization right after. It is doubtful that any stab wound would survive long into the active decay phase as long as the bones are unaffected and chemical reasons for death (see poisoning) will get masked or even destroyed by the decay quickly. The moment we lose most "soft tissue" evidence we are technically in the Advanced Decay stage, and in this, we rapidly start to lose evidence of the source of death unless the source is preserved in the bones.

So the reason the source of death is unclear is most likely because the corpse was not found quickly and instead spent a minimum of one to two weeks in decay, leaving a partially skeletonized corpse behind.

With tropical conditions and the right set of corpse eaters, even a week would leave a body so skeletonized that the flesh will be of near to no use.

HOWEVER sub-0 °C weather completely halts the breakdown of a corpse and instead slowly converts it into a well preserved ice-mummy over the course of decades. See "Ötzi" or the Incan mummies. On those specimens, a full autopsy could be conducted. Under such arctic environments, a predator eating substantial parts would very much muddy the results: with the cracked open head's contents and the soft tissue from the belly and chest area (heart, liver, kidneys, intestines) eaten by a predator like a polar bear, the actual source of death would become much harder to find, and it even might remove necessary markers like the injection spot.

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Can't see the forest for the trees

Just because you have a scanner able to create a perfect replica, and therefore access to all the data that that entails right down to the molecule, doesn't mean that you can make a 100% correct diagnosis of the circumstances of her death.

If you take the equivalent of something that is possible IRL. You have a Windows PC that crashes and you can't figure out why. You also have a device that can copy the PC's hard disk and see the data to a high level of detail, and a debugger which can step through every single instruction the CPU performs and inspect any byte in the computer's memory.

You make your copy and try and boot up and it still crashes. Even though you have access to every single byte and can view every little thing it does, with so much data and instructions running into the millions and billions, it's impossible to tell what's going wrong without an expert to look at a more high level overview, e.g. looking at certain settings, interpreting error messages, looking for missing applications and files, running tests, etc., because there's no individual instruction or byte value that corresponds to "crash".

So your scanner can find which molecules are where, what temperature they are and velocities, etc. and has all the information it needs to make an exact copy. But knowing to diagnose certain symptoms or the presence of certain drugs, etc. is a skill all of its own that needs an expert, who - expert as they are - is still fallible. Because no single molecule, or even a count of those molecules can indicate this drug is present, and while an expert might use the scan as an aid to their diagnosis, they still have to use their own expertise to make it.

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  • $\begingroup$ atoms are in the Angström area. The scanner can only pick up micron. LArge scale molecules still don't leave the nanometer area. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Jun 27 at 13:28
  • $\begingroup$ OK but my point remains. An overload of micro-data is not always as useful as one might expect. $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    Jun 27 at 13:33
  • $\begingroup$ It’s a decent point, though narrow AI is advanced enough in this setting that “we can’t extract meaningful information from all this data” isn’t the best excuse. $\endgroup$ Jun 27 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ Then, instead of "expert" substitute "Expert System". AI might be advanced, but it's still fallible - if this particular drug is obscure enough and doesn't leave an obvious residue in your system. $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    Jun 27 at 14:06
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The Scanner Was Off.

The scanner was turned off that day. The coroner did not use the molecular scanner. She doesn't know how. It is a specialized piece of equipment.

To do a molecular scan you need to call Scanner Chief Miles O'Brian.

enter image description here

The coroner doesn't get along with O'Brian. He avoids the scanner wherever possible. It is also a hassle to reschedule your work day contingent on the Chief arriving in short order.

This is all above-board since molecular scans are not mandated. The scan is only needed if there is any ambiguity about whether the patient is actually dead.

In this case there was no ambiguity. The patient has been at room temperature for twelve hours.

Little did the coroner know there is a new super drug that gives all the symptoms of death including stalled metabolism and decomposition. The code of best practice will be updated accordingly.

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Diagnosis is Heuristic

When you scan for every cell and chemical in the body, you have way to much data to be useful to a human investigator; so, attached to the scanner is software designed to aggregate the data into something diagnostically useful, and AI is notoriously easy to fool once you understand how it works.

When you scan a person there are way too many chemicals present to necessarily be able to identify every possible foreign contaminant; so, for forensic reasons, the AI just IDs the ones that are deemed suspicious according to a database of toxins, and ignores the rest. So, as long as the drug is rare enough, it may get picked up on the scanner, but it will not get flagged as something of note; so, no human operator will ever be informed of its presence.

When the scanner does not identify any known toxins present, all it can do it detect for standard signs of life: Body temperature, heart beat, etc. If a few of the criteria considered necessary to be alive fail, then the software could easily ignore other life signs and declare the person dead.

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I think the secret could be that death is really hard to define. If someone's heart is no longer beating, does the machine count that as death? Does it require the electrical charge in the brain to dissipate? If it is the former, it could lead to a situation where someone appears dead to the scanner but is in reality revivable.

With the cold and the cliff, would something like the 'body' freezing near solid but then thawing when the character needs to be revived? The drug could stop the cells from bursting when the person was frozen. I am not sure if it is true or not, but there have apparently been cases of people surviving being frozen more than I would expect. https://www.sciencealert.com/a-woman-famously-survived-being-frozen-solid-40-years-ago-here-s-the-science

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    $\begingroup$ I feel like there was a miscommunication here. This isn’t about the dead character being revived after the scan. It’s about the scanner, which is normally used to print people, being used as a forensic diagnostic tool. $\endgroup$ Jun 26 at 9:41

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