How do we identify human remains?

How do we identify human remains?


Forensic anthropologists, who analyse skeletal remains, can give us clues to how someone lived and died.


Jodie Ward, University of Technology Sydney

The recent case of a surgical implant found inside a Queensland crocodile has highlighted the challenges forensic scientists face when trying to identify human remains without much evidence to go on.

Did the crocodile eat a human with a surgical implant? If so, could the implant — a metal plate and some screws — be used to identify the victim? Or did the implant come from a dog?


Recovered from the stomach of a crocodile: did this metal plate come from a human or dog?
Koorana Crocodile Park


Death by crocodile is reasonably rare. In the past decade, there have been about 67 crocodile attacks in Australia, a quarter of which were fatal.

Victim identification can be impossible in these cases, unless a body part with a unique characteristic is recovered, such as a medical device with a serial number. It’s just one of a range of potential techniques to put names and faces to hundreds of unidentified human remains in Australia.

Read more:
Australia has 2,000 missing persons and 500 unidentified human remains – a dedicated lab could find matches

Forensic examination of human remains is crucial to establish the person’s identity, and cause and manner of death. This way they can have a proper burial, families can get answers, death certificates can be issued and justice can be served.

It is essential for identifying missing persons, disaster victims and casualties of war.

The big three: fingerprints, teeth, DNA

When human remains are recovered, three primary scientific methods are traditionally used to identify who they belong to:

  • fingerprint analysis, which looks at the skin patterns on the tips of fingers
  • dental analysis, which looks at the teeth and any dental work, such as crowns and fillings
  • DNA analysis, which looks at DNA profiles recovered from soft or hard body tissues.

This information can then be compared to a database of fingerprint, dental or DNA records.

Implants and x-rays can also be useful

The discovery of medical implants during an autopsy can also be informative.

These include prosthetic joints, breast implants, pacemakers or dental implants. Investigators may be able to link these to patient records via their unique markings, including a trade mark, date of manufacture and serial number.

In Australia, the Australian Orthopaedic Association National Joint Replacement Registry and Australian Breast Device Registry collect and store information that can allow people who have had joint or breast surgery to be identified.

But there are no national registers of heart or dental implants. Such mandatory records would allow implants to be easily traced back to recipients or surgeons.

Forensic scientists can also compare medical images, such as x-rays or CT scans, taken before and after death.

For head images, unique features such as the sinuses or the arrangement and condition of the teeth can be compared.

Body scans can also be used to look for rarer skeletal features, such as fractures, amputations or cancer lesions.


Imaging such as x-rays can reveal fractures and surgical implants.


These scientific techniques, either individually or in combination, have been successfully used to identify large numbers of missing persons or disaster victims.

Computerisation, digitisation and miniaturisation of forensic technologies have further improved the identification process. Now, fingerprints, teeth, DNA and medical images can be quickly and easily collected and searched in real time using portable instruments at the scenes of mass disasters.

Read more:
How dental records will help identify bodies from MH17

But there are limits

These methods are only as good as the information we have from when the person was alive. So if someone doesn’t have their fingerprints on file and hasn’t visited a dentist recently, or if close living relatives aren’t available to provide a DNA reference sample or they’ve never had a CT scan, these methods are likely to be useless.

And if a surgical implant doesn’t have unique markings (as in the case of the Queensland crocodile), it makes the task extremely difficult.

So forensic scientists need to explore other methods.

Clues from tattoos and bones

Distinctive physical features like scars, birthmarks and body modifications such as tattoos and piercings, could help identify someone.

Custom tattoos helped identify the victim of the famous 1935 “shark arm case” and decomposing bodies following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

A forensic anthropologist can also study a set of skeletal remains to reveal a lot about that person when they were living — including their sex, ancestry, stature, age, disease and any fatal injuries.

Radiocarbon dating of teeth and bone could tell us when that person was born and died. And the sample’s chemical signature could indicate the region where they were born, lived for long periods or recently travelled. It can even identify what they ate.

Scientists can also reconstruct a 3D image of someone’s face if a skull is found.

New DNA intelligence tools

Beyond routine DNA testing to determine someone’s sex or relatives, more novel DNA methods are showing promise for piecing together an image of a missing person.


New DNA tools can now predict someone’s physical appearance from a single bone.


DNA can now be used to predict someone’s ancestry and hair, eye and skin colour. But using DNA to accurately estimate age and facial features is still some way off.

Forensic genetic genealogy is also growing in popularity for identifying Jane Does (unidentified females). This is where investigators search a public DNA database of results, looking for genetic links to the DNA from the remains.

Other countries may consider adopting this technique for their cases, as long as the database owners allow law enforcement agencies to keep using the data to identify people.

Read more:
Is your genome really your own? The public and forensic value of DNA

The value of ‘body farms’

Human taphonomic facilities, such as the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research, study the science of how bodies decompose. These facilities, often called “body farms”, are important for developing new forensic identification techniques. The techniques can be tested on donated human bodies before being used in forensic cases.

Read more:
‘This is going to affect how we determine time since death’: how studying body donors in the bush is changing forensic science

The best and most efficient way to identify the remains of unknown and missing Australians involves combining expertise from a number of different branches of forensic science and coordinating these efforts nationally.

So for cases where fragments of human remains are found in the stomachs of crocodiles, sharks or some other human predator, investigators now have a toolkit of forensic techniques to choose from to identify the victim.

However, in this most recent case, the recovery of only an orthopaedic device has left forensic scientists with more questions than answers.The Conversation

Jodie Ward, Director, Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research; Forensic DNA Identification Specialist, NSW Health Pathology; Associate Professor, Centre for Forensic Science, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Glamorising violent offenders with ‘true crime’ shows and podcasts needs to stop

Glamorising violent offenders with ‘true crime’ shows and podcasts needs to stop

Xanthe Mallett, University of Newcastle

Even in death, the voice of Carl Williams is louder than that of his victims. Intimate prison letters written by the convicted murderer and drug trafficker to his ex-wife, Roberta – herself recently arrested on kidnap and threats to kill charges, allegedly made against a documentary producer – were published this month.

The explosion of true crime in podcasts, streaming series, and books has fuelled our interest in violent and dangerous perpetrators, and has increasingly meant the victims continue to be overlooked.

Indeed, Ivan Milat, Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer are household names. Yet Deborah Everist, Caryn Campbell, or Tony Hughes – victims of these violent killers, have been largely forgotten.

Deadly charms

My students and I often watch true crime documentaries as stimuli for discussion about criminal causation, or victim selection. Recently, a student in one such tutorial expressed admiration for notorious US serial killer Ted Bundy, even going as far as to say she was attracted to him – or at least Hollywood heartthrob Zac Efron’s portrayal of him.

Bundy killed at least 30 women, assaulted many more, and escaped prison twice. He was perhaps active from the late 1960s until 1978. Bundy was the subject of a recent four-part Netflix series entitled Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, billed as “present-day interviews, archival footage and audio recordings made on death row”.


Zac Efron plays up Ted Bundy’s killer charm in the recent Netflix series.


The series premiered in January, to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Bundy’s execution. Netflix followed this factual account of Bundy’s crimes with a film about the case called Extremely Wicked and Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Efron.

I found my student’s affection for him confronting. She was willing to overlook the appalling violence because Efron – and this was also true of Bundy – was a charismatic and attractive person.

I was left wondering if the glamorisation of offenders through true crime was making people desensitised to the plight of victims. And, if this was the case, the affect this had on surviving victims and their families.

Some victims are speaking out.

A recent article focused on on Bill Thomas, whose sister Cathy’s 1986 murder in Colonial Parkway, Virginia, remains unsolved. Bill is at the first day of CrimCon, an annual true crime festival, to draw attention to his sister’s murder and put pressure on the FBI to investigate it further. To do that, he has to rub shoulders with people wearing clothes emblazoned with serial killers’ faces.


Serial Killers Gallery at the National Museum of Crime & Punishment in Washington, DC.


We are particularly fascinated by cold cases. Even if we don’t know who the offender is, the salacious details of the crimes overshadow the pain and suffering of victims.

I became painfully aware of this recently while writing a book about cold cases, with the goal to maintain a focus on the victims – each case is included with the hopes of learning something new. A new forensic technique that might progress it, another victim that may be part of the sequence and whose case remains unsolved.
Victims’ identities are perversely subsumed into that of the person who offended against them, and I wanted to try to undo some of that.

Focus is shifting

Narcissistic killers like Ivan Milat and Daniel Holdom (who violently murdered Karlie Pearce-Stevenson and her 2-year-old daughter Khandalyce Pearce in 2010) maintain their notoriety by writing letters from prison. Milat’s letters to his nephew, Alistair Shipsey, were published in 2016. Holdom’s letters were turned into a podcast by the Daily Telegraph.

But recent events have seen a shift in focus.

Victimology (the study of victims) is growing as a criminological discipline and academics and victims’ advocates have been saying for some time that the centre needs to shift from the offenders to the victims. But we have largely been shouting into a black hole.

The Christchurch mosque shootings on 15 March 2019, gave voice to a redirection in attention when New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern refused to name the perpetrator – a 28-year-old Australian man who had live-streamed the atrocity and released a manifesto outlining white genocide conspiracy theories. Instead, she urged the public to speak the names of the victims. This was a powerful message that the perpetrator would not be given the attention he sought.

New Zealand went further, making it a criminal offence to copy, distribute, or exhibit the video of the live shootings, with potential penalties of up to 14 years in prison for an individual, or up to $100,000 in fines for a corporation. One man was sentenced to nearly two years in prison for sharing the video that he embellished to look like a video game, including cross hairs and a body count.

This week, 24-year-old woman Michaela Dunn was identified as the victim of a Sydney knife attack after she was allegedly killed in a CBD apartment by Mert Ney, 20, before he took his knife to the streets and was overpowered by members of the public. Tributes flowed for the victim, described by her mother as a “beautiful, loving woman who had studied at university and travelled widely”.

Fame can breed copycats

Publicising violent crime and its offenders can lead to further harm in the form of copycat attacks.

Nine days after the Christchurch shootings, there was an arson attack against a mosque in California, followed by a shooting. The offender praised the Christchurch shooter.

Still, my hope is that if Ardern’s ethos is applied to future events, our interest in violent offenders will lessen and our sensitivity to the effect of their crimes will be revived.

We can always learn from true crime events, but we must be careful to move away from glamorisation of perpetrators and pay due respect to the victims and their families.The Conversation

Xanthe Mallett, Forensic Criminologist, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Here’s how tech giants profit from invading our privacy, and how we can start taking it back

Here’s how tech giants profit from invading our privacy, and how we can start taking it back


Your online activity can be turned into an intimate portrait of your life – and used for profit.


Katharine Kemp, UNSW

Australia’s consumer watchdog has recommended major changes to our consumer protection and privacy laws. If these reforms are adopted, consumers will have much more say about how we deal with Google, Facebook, and other businesses.

The proposals include a right to request erasure of our information; choices about whether we are tracked online and offline; potential penalties of A$10 million or more for companies that misuse our information or impose unfair privacy terms; and default settings that favour privacy.

Read more:
Consumer watchdog calls for new measures to combat Facebook and Google’s digital dominance

The report from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) says consumers have growing concerns about the often invisible ways companies track us and disclose our information to third parties. At the same time, many consumers find privacy policies almost impossible to understand and feel they have no choice but to accept.

My latest research paper details how companies that trade in our personal data have incentives to conceal their true practices, so they can use vast quantities of data about us for profit without pushback from consumers. This can preserve companies’ market power, cause harm to consumers, and make it harder for other companies to compete on improved privacy.


The vicious cycle of privacy abuse.
Helen J. Robinson, Author provided


Privacy policies are broken

The ACCC report points out that privacy policies tend to be long, complex, hard to navigate, and often create obstacles to opting out of intrusive practices. Many of them are not informing consumers about what actually happens to their information or providing real choices.

Many consumers are unaware, for example, that Facebook can track their activity online when they are logged out, or even if they are not a Facebook user.

Read more:
Shadow profiles – Facebook knows about you, even if you’re not on Facebook

Some privacy policies are outright misleading. Last month, the US Federal Trade Commission settled with Facebook on a US$5 billion fine as a penalty for repeatedly misleading users about the fact that personal information could be accessed by third-party apps without the user’s consent, if a user’s Facebook “friend” gave consent.

If this fine sounds large, bear in mind that Facebook’s share price went up after the FTC approved the settlement.

The ACCC is now investigating privacy representations by Google and Facebook under the Australian Consumer Law, and has taken action against the medical appointment booking app Health Engine for allegedly misleading patients while it was selling their information to insurance brokers.

Nothing to hide…?

Consumers generally have very little idea about what information about them is actually collected online or disclosed to other companies, and how that can work to their disadvantage.

A recent report by the Consumer Policy Research Centre explained how companies most of us have never heard of – data aggregators, data brokers, data analysts, and so on – are trading in our personal information. These companies often collect thousands of data points on individuals from various companies we deal with, and use them to provide information about us to companies and political parties.

Data companies have sorted consumers into lists on the basis of sensitive details about their lifestyles, personal politics and even medical conditions, as revealed by reports by the ACCC and the US Federal Trade Commission. Say you’re a keen jogger, worried about your cholesterol, with broadly progressive political views and a particular interest in climate change – data companies know all this about you and much more besides.

So what, you might ask. If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to lose, right? Not so. The more our personal information is collected, stored and disclosed to new parties, the more our risk of harm increases.

Potential harms include fraud and identity theft (suffered by 1 in 10 Australians); being charged higher retail prices, insurance premiums or interest rates on the basis of our online behaviour; and having our information combined with information from other sources to reveal intimate details about our health, financial status, relationships, political views, and even sexual activity.

Read more:
Why you might be paying more for your airfare than the person seated next to you

In written testimony to the US House of Representatives, legal scholar Frank Pasquale explained that data brokers have created lists of sexual assault victims, people with sexually transmitted diseases, Alzheimer’s, dementia, AIDS, sexual impotence or depression. There are also lists of “impulse buyers”, and lists of people who are known to be susceptible to particular types of advertising.

Major upgrades to Australian privacy laws

According to the ACCC, Australia’s privacy law is not protecting us from these harms, and falls well behind privacy protections consumers enjoy in comparable countries in the European Union, for example. This is bad for business too, because weak privacy protection undermines consumer trust.

Importantly, the ACCC’s proposed changes wouldn’t just apply to Google and Facebook, but to all companies governed by the Privacy Act, including retail and airline loyalty rewards schemes, media companies, and online marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay.

Australia’s privacy legislation (and most privacy policies) only protect our “personal information”. The ACCC says the definition of “personal information” needs to be clarified to include technical data like our IP addresses and device identifiers, which can be far more accurate in identifying us than our names or contact details.

Read more:
Explainer: what is surveillance capitalism and how does it shape our economy?

Whereas some companies currently keep our information for long periods, the ACCC says we should have a right to request erasure to limit the risks of harm, including from major data breaches and reidentification of anonymised data.

Companies should stop pre-ticking boxes in favour of intrusive practices such as location tracking and profiling. Default settings should favour privacy.

Currently, there is no law against “serious invasions of privacy” in Australia, and the Privacy Act gives individuals no direct right of action. According to the ACCC, this should change. It also supports plans to increase maximum corporate penalties under the Privacy Act from A$2.1 million to A$10 million (or 10% of turnover or three times the benefit, whichever is larger).

Increased deterrence from consumer protection laws

Our unfair contract terms law could be used to attack unfair terms imposed by privacy policies. The problem is, currently, this only means we can draw a line through unfair terms. The law should be amended to make unfair terms illegal and impose potential fines of A$10 million or more.

The ACCC also recommends Australia adopt a new law against “unfair trading practices”, similar to those used in other countries to tackle corporate wrongdoing including inadequate data security and exploitative terms of use.

So far, the government has acknowledged that reforms are needed but has not committed to making the recommended changes. The government’s 12-week consultation period on the recommendations ends on October 24, with submissions due by September 12.The Conversation

Katharine Kemp, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, UNSW, and Co-Leader, ‘Data as a Source of Market Power’ Research Stream of The Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Rethink inheritances. These days they no longer help the young, they go to the already middle-aged

Rethink inheritances. These days they no longer help the young, they go to the already middle-aged


Most inheritances go to middle-aged Australians who don’t need help.


Owain Emslie, Grattan Institute and Danielle Wood, Grattan Institute

Inheritances can have an enormous impact on finances and lives.

Yet in Australia we know surprisingly little about who gets them and how big they are.

New Grattan Institute research provides some answers.

Inheritances are big and growing

A sample of estates from Victoria’s probate office suggests the median estate in Victoria is worth around A$500,000. That’s likely to be close to what it is Australia-wide.

But many are much larger. About 20% are worth more than A$1 million, and 7% are more than A$2 million. Property is the largest component, accounting for about half of the average value.

The main beneficiaries of “final” estates (estates without a surviving spouse) are children, who receive about three-quarters of all inheritance money.

Other family members, such as nieces, nephews and grandchildren, receive about 20%. Friends get about 4%, and charities 2%.

Read more:
For the first time in a long time, we’re setting up a generation to be worse off than the one before it

Average inheritances are growing about 2 percentage points faster than inflation each year, which is a good deal faster than wages or gross domestic product.

There are reasons to believe they will soon grow even faster.

Net wealth has grown strongly among older households. Households headed by people aged over 75 now have an average of A$1 million in assets, up from A$400,000 for a household headed by a person of the same age in 1994.

And most retirees don’t draw down on their savings.

Indeed, many are net savers through much of their retirement, meaning there’s only one place their accumulated property and superannuation wealth can go: into bequests.

Inheritances are going to the already old…

These days, inheritances generally don’t arrive when people are saving for a house or trying to raise a young family.

More than 80% of money passed down from parents goes to people aged 50 and over.

The most common age bracket in which people to receive an inheritance from parents is 55-59.




It’s the result of good news – parents are living longer.

But as life expectancy grows still further, it will mean inheritances increasingly supplement the retirement savings of middle-aged Australians rather than help young people get into housing.

…and the already wealthy

The wealthiest 20% of Australians get 38% of inheritance money; the poorest 20% get only 8%.

It means the growing wealth of Baby Boomers is likely to end up concentrated in the hands of a select group relatively well-off Generation Xers and Millennials rather than being widely spread.




It will reinforce the advantages already enjoyed by people with well-off parents, including better schooling, better connections, and a greater ability to take financial risks because of a parental safety net.

If (as is possible) inheritances end up becoming the dominant route to wealth in Australia surpassing lifetime earnings, there will be less incentive for ordinary Australians to attempt to get ahead through individual endeavour.

We will have entered what French economist Thomas Piketty calls a “Jane Austen world”.

We don’t tax inheritances…

Calm debate on policy setting around inheritances is hard to come by in Australia.

Inheritances and gifts have been tax-free since the 1970s.

Australia is one of only seven OECD countries without any inheritance, estate, or gift taxes. Despite the economic arguments for inheritance taxes, there seems to be little appetite to bring them back.

…if anything, we subsidise them

Not taxing inheritances is one thing, but actively subsidising them is another.

Superannuation tax breaks were intended to encourage people to save for their retirement and to take pressure off the age pension system.

But given that many retired Australians do not draw down on their capital, a large part of the super tax concessions simply boosts the size of bequests.

Super death benefits tax is intended to claw back the superannuation tax breaks when the money is passed on, in order to ensure that the government doesn’t subsidise inheritances.

But, at 15%, the rate is too low to capture the value of the accumulated tax breaks. And it can easily be avoided by retirees withdrawing funds tax-free and then contributing them back as a post-tax contribution, which is tax-free when passed on.

The special treatment of the family home in the age pension means test also acts to boost inheritances at taxpayers’ expense. Without it there would less to pass on.

It’s time to claw some of them back

There is little justification for taxpayers subsidising inheritances. Policy changes could help.

We recommend a higher tax on super bequests paid to non-dependents to better capture the value of the super tax breaks that are passed on rather than used for retirement. The cap on post-tax super contributions should also be lowered, to limit the re-contribution strategies.

Read more:
House prices and demographics make death duties an idea whose time has come

The age pension assets test should include part of the value of the family home, perhaps the part above A$500,000. Seniors with higher-value properties should be allowed to borrow against their home using the Pension Loans Scheme.

This would give them the ability to stay in their home but would mean that some of the wealth that would otherwise be passed to heirs (most likely in their 50s) would instead be used to fund them, taking pressure off the pension.

Read more:
Vital Signs: policies come and policies go, but surely we shouldn’t be subsidising inheritances

The Conversation

Owain Emslie, Associate, Grattan Institute and Danielle Wood, Program Director, Budget Policy and Institutional Reform, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Why too many fearless people on a team make collaboration less likely

Why too many fearless people on a team make collaboration less likely


People high on psychopathic personality traits, such as fearlessness and impulsiveness, often refuse to find common ground.
from, CC BY-ND


Hedwig Eisenbarth, Victoria University of Wellington; Martina Testori, University of Southampton, and Rebecca Hoyle, University of Southampton

Team work is common across society. From schools to multinational businesses, people usually collaborate in groups towards a shared goal.

It can work well, but sometimes, it can be a disaster. One team might create a proposal for a new policy because all members manage to agree on details, while another fails because they can’t find common ground.

Why is it that groups can vary so much in their outcomes? We know that some people are better team players than others. In fact, job interviews and personality assessments often include questions about team skills.

But this assumes that only individual personality is relevant, not the interaction between people with various personality characteristics.

Investigating group behaviour

We don’t yet fully understand how different personality types within a group interact and how that affects group outcomes. To address this, we investigated which mixes of personalities create more or less cooperative group working styles.

We wanted to know whether it matters how many group members show personality traits that have been found to be less cooperative. People high on so-called psychopathic personality traits are characterised by goal-oriented, fearless, impulsive, manipulative behaviours, and also by less cooperative behaviours such as refusing to find common ground when interacting with another person.

Read more:
Not all psychopaths are criminals – some psychopathic traits are actually linked to success

But does the proportion of individuals high on these traits within a group matter for the overall group behaviour?

We asked participants to decide whether to cooperate with the people sitting next to them in mixed groups, composed of different numbers of participants with high or low scores on a questionnaire for psychopathic personality traits.


Participants who did not know each other were asked if they would like to cooperate with the people next to them, over a series of rounds.


Usually, this setup leads to a maintenance of cooperative behaviour across a series of rounds of sharing. In our research we investigated how this tendency toward mutual cooperation is influenced by personality traits of the members of the group.

We found groups that were composed entirely of people with low psychopathic traits and groups with a low proportion (20%) of individuals with high psychopathic traits showed the expected cooperative behaviour. But in groups with a larger proportion (50%) of individuals with high psychopathic traits, the overall rate of cooperative behaviour was significantly lower. We measured this by the number of cooperative decisions participants in a group made.

Read more:
How design thinking can help teachers collaborate

What does that mean for teams?

The overall group behaviour seems to be more than the sum of its parts. Group composition had an effect on cooperation over and above the effect of the individuals’ own level of psychopathic traits. Group members with low levels of psychopathic traits behaved less cooperatively and more “psychopathically” when in groups with more people who had high levels of psychopathic traits.

This suggests that interacting with people with high psychopathic traits increases uncooperative behaviour across all members of a group. The personality characteristics of group members matter for cooperative behaviour, and can change individuals’ behaviour. But the effect is only seen when a substantial proportion of individuals in a group have non-cooperative personality traits.

These findings indicate that group composition matters. Teams working on a collaborative task are more likely to cooperate successfully if most of the group members have more cooperative personality types. But our findings also trigger new questions about what role the type of task plays in collaborations and whether group behaviour stabilises over longer time periods.The Conversation

Hedwig Eisenbarth, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington; Martina Testori, , University of Southampton, and Rebecca Hoyle, Professor, University of Southampton

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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