Virtual Autopsy

This article from the Economist Dec 10th 2009 .

PERFORMING a postmortem on a murder victim can take days, delaying any criminal investigation. Moreover, pathologists sometimes get only one chance to look for clues when dissecting a body. But Anders Persson, director of Linköping University’s centre for medical image science and visualisation in Sweden, hopes to change that. Along with his colleagues Thomas Rydell and Anders Ynnerman of the Norrköping Visualisation Centre, they have created a virtual autopsy system.

The body needing to be examined is first scanned using a computed tomography (CT) machine, a process which takes about 20 seconds and creates up to 25,000 images, each one a slice through the body. Different tissues, bodily substances and foreign objects (such as bullets) absorb the scanner’s X-rays in varying amounts. The software recognises these and assigns them a density value. These densities are then rendered with the aid of an NVIDiA graphics card, of a type used for high-speed gaming, into a 3-D visualisation of different colours and opacities. Air pockets are shown as blue, soft tissues as beige, blood vessels as red and bone as white. A pathologist can then peel through layers of virtual skin and muscle with the click of a computer mouse.

To make the process easier, Dr Persson and his colleagues have also created a virtual autopsy table. This is a large touch-sensitive LCD screen which stands like a table in an operating room, displaying an image of the body. Up to six people can gather around the table and, with a swipe of a finger, remove layers of muscle, zoom in and out of organs and slice through tissue with a virtual knife.

The Swedish police have already used the researchers’ virtual-autopsy technology to investigate nearly 350 cases. It has proved capable of detecting crucial but difficult-to-spot pieces of evidence, such as the angle of a bullet’s trajectory, air pockets in the wrong place in the body and bone fractures in a burns victim. The virtual autopsy can also be used to determine the cause of death in a few hours. And unlike a physical autopsy it does not alter evidence, enabling investigators to revisit a cadaver for additional clues if necessary. Television detectives everywhere will have them soon.

Hayek Interview

Here is a transcript of a 15.25-hour interview completed under the auspices of the UCLA Oral History Program and the Pacific Academy of Advanced Studies. I haven’t read the piece so I can’t vouch for its quality (I don’t recognise the interviewers). Anyway, one would hope that there will be some interest within the 1,046 pages. Download here (pdf: 19.73 MB).


An Economist’s Insight

Roger Koppl was been banging on about knowledge monopolies for the last year or so. I’ve heard comments to the effect: “What business is it of an economist meddling in the world of forensics?” Roger makes the point crystal clear in a recent posting of his. I quote the punchline:

The issue is not getting the right people in the job, but giving them the right incentives, which is another lesson economists can appreciate.


While I too am sceptical about the techno-ebullience associated with MRI scans what is interesting about the self-defeating claim in a cheekily entitled Economist article “Do economists need brains?” is this quote:

neuroscience could not transform economics because what goes on inside the brain is irrelevant to the discipline. What matters are the decisions people take—in the jargon, their “revealed preferences”—not the process by which they reach them.

The Economist is referring to an article by Faruk Gul and Wolfgang Pesendorfer entitled  “The Case for Mindless Economics.” Now whatever my scepticism, it seems the aforementioned quote is perverse. As the journalist rightly says Hayek certainly understood that markets do not rest upon “rational” behavior (Hayek, 1944, p.64; 1988, pp.53-54) but more importantly appreciated the essential place of mind in any explanation of sociality. This can be found across his work and in his neglected work (1952).


Hayek, F. A. (1944/1976). The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hayek, F. A. (1952/1976). The Sensory Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hayek, F. A. (1988). The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.