The work of a forensic microscopist is as richly varied as the world of crime. Palenik is currently consulting on evidentiary details from a notorious unsolved serial murder case on the West Coast, as well as a recent kidnapping in California. Not long ago he analyzed an allegedly ancient bronze statuette that a New York City gallery owner intended to buy for hundreds of thousands of dollars, proving, on the basis of a single fiber trapped within its patina, that it was a fake (the fiber had been treated with a 20th-century synthetic product). Palenik is much in demand, but you won't find him holding forth on Larry King Live, as some of his counterparts do, about his own cases or anyone else's. His clients seek him, in part, because they know they can rely on his discretion.
Palenik's passion began when he was 8 and his parents, a truck driver and a homemaker, bought him a 400x-magnification Gilbert microscope. A chapter in the manual called "The Vacuum Cleaner Detective" explained how much could be learned from dust. Palenik and his younger brother Mark-now a transmission electron microscopist-obsessively scoured their mother's vacuum cleaner bags, identifying salt crystals and particles of pepper from the kitchen, talcum powder from the bathroom, hairs from various family members. (As Palenik's mentor, McCrone, used to say, "Only two kinds of people appreciate dust: microscopists and housewives.") "There was something fascinating to me about taking a speck of something and being able to tell all this stuff from it," Palenik recalls. When the boys' uncle died, they asked for his clothes so they could vacuum his cuffs. Not exactly a normal childhood, perhaps, but their parents encouraged them.
Palenik's approach to microscopy is something of an anomaly. He was discouraged by his professors at the University of Illinois from pursuing 19th-century microchemical analysis methods, such as adding reagents to substances to identify them on the basis of the ensuing chemical reactions. Those traditional techniques had been eclipsed by spectroscopic methods involving X-ray, infrared, and ultraviolet light. Palenik learned the new methods but persevered with the unpopular ones too; ultimately he opted to skip classes and spend his days in the library, creating his own curriculum.
When I stepped on the sticky blue mat that strips dust from the soles of shoes and into the Microtrace labs, I found myself in some of the cleanest rooms I've ever been in. One can imagine that if the 8-year-old boy could have had the run of them he would have thought himself in heaven. Bottles worthy of Dr. Jekyll's laboratory, with yellowed, fading labels and skull-and-crossbones symbols, peek from glass-faced cabinets-salt petre, ammonium vanadate, chloroform. Criminal evidence is strewn about: a dingo pelt (Palenik's cases have involved the illegal trade in endangered species), the bicycle ridden by a girl who was hit by a school bus, a swath of carpet from Swiss Air Flight 111, which crashed off Nova Scotia on September 2, 1998.