I presented Palenik with a plastic bag full of dirt and asked if he could, in short order, tell me anything about its origins. After drying the sample under a heat lamp, he placed a bit of it under a polarizing microscope. He looked through the eyepiece with practiced ease-no squinting, no hunching of the shoulders. He didn't have to stop talking to concentrate on what he was seeing. A quick application of heat and a moment's glance at the transparent and (to me) abstract shapes under the microscope, and he told me my sample contained iron and humus, and had probably come from a grassy area or a place that received the runoff from such an area. He was right: I had spooned it from my back yard. He apologized for not telling me more, but we were nearing the end of the work day, and further tests would have taken more than the 5 minutes he'd needed to say this much.
Cleveland, December 2001. A motorist found his traffic ticket unjust. On the memo line of the check with which he paid his fine he'd scribbled: "Damn the man." The envelope that contained the check also held a small quantity of white powder. It seemed clear the motorist wanted to scare somebody with the possibility of anthrax. Was he bluffing?
The Cuyahoga County police turned to Palenik. He was quickly able to rule out anthrax, as the long spores of the anthrax bacillus are easy for an experienced observer to recognize. Determining what the substance was, on the other hand, might require some research. Palenik's file cabinets are packed with at least 10,000 reference samples-items he has collected with care, often by soliciting aid from the curators of natural history museums or from insider contacts at manufacturing companies. His collection includes metals and alloys (including particles that have been drilled, sawed, crushed with a sledgehammer, and so on), man-made fibers, human hairs, animal hairs of diverse species (he has an entire drawer full of camel hair), minerals, sands, wood, pollen, spores, leaves, seeds, food products (spices, grains, starches), polymers, synthetic drugs, explosives, and occupational dusts vacuumed from the clothing of laborers from various industries.
If Palenik doesn't possess an item in a vial or envelope or as a permanent mount on a microscope slide, he consults his library, which is lined floor to ceiling with titles such as Optical Crystallography, Volcanic Ash, Cytology of the Human Vagina, Crease Resisting Fabrics, and Fur: Third Edition. Not to mention The Particle Atlas, the six-volume masterpiece on which Palenik collaborated with McCrone, which features photomicrographs of everything imaginable, from dandruff to auto brake lining, gunshot residue to pudding mix. Palenik's son Chris, 25, a grad student in geology at the University of Michigan who's learning the family business, is digitizing the lab's extensive collection. It's a lengthy process because each sample must be prepared and analyzed before being photographed. The analysis quantifies such properties as density and refractive indices, providing the user with several ways to match an unknown sample.