Sydney Science Festival
Forensics explained, life on Mars and more
HIDDEN DEEP IN the Blue Mountains is the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research, run by UTS. It’s commonly shortened to AFTER, but many know it by another name: the body farm. It’s here leading scientific researcher professor Shari Forbes spends most of her time surrounded by decomposing dead bodies. Morbid, yes, but fascinating. “AFTER is the only facility in Australia where we allow people to donate their bodies to science so that we can study the process of decomposition,” says Forbes. Her job is to assist with cadaver detection dogs. “I collect and chemically analyse the decomposition odour,” she says. “We’re trying to understand the compounds in the odour that dogs recognise when they’re looking for human remains.” The facility is the first of its kind in Australia, and models itself after the body farms found in the US. They both love and loathe the comparison to TV’s CSI. “We love it because it has really raised awareness of forensic science but it’s caused what we call the ‘CSI Effect’ where there’s an unrealistic expectation of what we can achieve and the time frame we can do that in.” Since opening the body farm early last year, they’ve discovered how different bodies decay in varying climates. Forbes tells us they can no longer use pigs as an accurate analogy for human decomposition. “It’s shown me that my last ten years of research has not been as accurate as I would have liked. But it’s also shown why we have to have these facilities. We can never recreate a real scenario unless we have human remains being used.” Professor Forbes is the ambassador for Sydney Science Festival – two weeks of talks, exhibitions and workshops from August 8-20. She’ll be giving a keynote talk on all things forensics, death and decomposition – but don’t worry, she makes this not-so-dinner-party-friendly topic accessible. àCracking the World of Forensics. Powerhouse Museum, 500 Harris St, Ultimo 2007. 02 9217 0111. sydneyscience.com.au. 6.30pm. $0-$32. Fri Aug 11.
“We can’t recreate a real scenario without human remains”