MySci Round-Up, August 31: The co-Inventor of the Drunkometer

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This day in 1912 was the birthday of Robert F. Borkenstein, the forensic scientist whose technological legacy has earned many an inebriated motorist—including a certain male movie star reportedly prone to intemperate antisemitic rants, whose name we won’t mention—a date with a judge. As his 
2002 New York Times obituary details, the Fort Wayne, IN native’s youthful passion was science experiments, and after high school, he went to work as a photographic technician, where he invented a new color printing process. 
In 1936, he took a job with the Indiana state police, where—despite his lack of a college education and inability to meet the height requirement for troopers—he rose to the rank of captain for laboratory services. Borkenstein worked with John Larson on the development of the polygraph, but another of his collaborations had even more impact.

At the time, the only reliable scientific way for police to determine the actual level of a drunken driving suspect’s inebriation was to measure the suspect’s blood alcohol level, which required a cumbersome blood test by a physician. But Dr. Rolla Harger of the Indiana School of Medicine, who had read late 19th and early 20th research establishing a corelation between blood alcohol concentration and alcohol in air in the lungs, got the idea of testing suspects’ breath. Borkenstein then worked with Harger to develop a device that they call the drunkometer, one of the first accurate blood-alcohol measuring instruments which debuted in the 1930s.

But Borkenstein eventually grew dissatisfied with the drunkometer’s performance, and began to experiment again in his basement at home. As he later recounted in an article, he drew upon his photographic knowledge to construct an even more precise tool, which he called the breathalyzer, in the early 1950s. The device combined a suspect’s breath with a chemical that reacts with alcohol, and then measured the degree to which the mixture changed in color when exposed to incandescent light. Borkenstein sold his prized British sports car to pay for the patent fees, and found a company to manufacture the device, which came into use in the late 1950s and immediately became an important police tool. Borkenstein and his device also were utilized in 1960s research that demonstrated the degree to which various levels of drinking and blood alcohol would impair driving skills. Those findings, in turn, raised awareness and helped lead to stricter laws against drunk driving. In recent years, scientists have updated Borkenstein’s basic idea and used it to measure alcohol exuded by the skin, which has led to the alcohol monitoring bracelets that a certain hard-partying young actress whose name we won’t mention has turned into a fashion accessory. And with that, here are the science stories of the day.

New breakthrough allows even greater miniaturization of computer memory. Computer makers, who had been worried that the advance of computing capabilities was finally stymied, are quite thrilled.

Resurgence of bedbugs baffles scientists. It only makes us itchy to know more, though.

Scientists use MRI to capture moving images of muscles, joints. In the future, you may not have to lie perfectly motionless in that tube for 20 minutes.

Bronze-Age Turks performed brain surgery. We’re talking 4,000 years ago. One reason: they needed to treat head injuries possibly sustained in fights over access to copper deposits.

Are two heads really better than one in problem solving? We’re talking about separate people, of course, not a second head grafted onto your shoulder, like the Soviets did with dogs. New research suggests that collaborative decisions are, indeed, better, because they help counter the Dunning-Kruger Effect, in which incompetent individuals greatly overestimate their skills.

RIM averts BlackBerry ban in India. Unfortunately, to do that, they had to give Indian officials access to eavesdrop on encrypted communications.