WHERE DID IT GO … ? Or Ways to Improve Your Search Techniques

By Godfrey Harris

Important things always seem to go missing the instant they are accidently dropped. What happens to all those candies, coins, and contact lenses as well as the pills, pins, and pens after they fall? Is there any pattern to the way they and everything else scatter?

Forensic scientists, of course, study blood spatters to help establish the likely facts in a crime. Why, I thought, couldn’t we determine object scatter in the same way? So I asked Adolf P. Shvedchikov, a distinguished visiting scientist from the Institute of Chemical Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, for help. He determined that we would be able to learn “considerable information” about scatter patterns if a variety of objects were dropped from a consistent height onto wood, vinyl, and carpeted surfaces. He decided on dropping items from an elevation of 36 inches — about half way between the surface of a standard kitchen table and the height of a counter top. Dr. Shvedchikov thought that 50 iterations of a single object onto each flooring type would be sufficient to provide a reasonably reliable pattern of how these objects scatter.

His findings are interesting:

— While 68% of the items tested — different coins, medications, and office supplies of various sizes, weights, and shapes — move no more than 30 inches from the drop zone, they skitter away in totally random directions. If you drop something, your search should always encompass a full 360 degrees from the point of assumed impact to be sure to inspect everywhere the object might have gone.

— The shape and condition of an object proves more important than its weight in determining the distance it is likely to travel from ground zero. Round surfaces and edges can generate a lot of movement; objects with flat surfaces do not. For example, he found that a push pin can bounce nearly two yards and a coin can roll more than 15 feet on vinyl. If an item is torn, moist, or irregular in design, it can adhere to a range of different surfaces and/or be deflected in unusual ways. Both shape and condition determine the extent of any ricochet off a wall, door, or piece of furniture. Consider shape and condition, then, to determine the extent of the probable radius of a search zone.

— The elasticity of the surface on which an object falls is crucial to where to look for missing items. Compared to carpeting, vinyl surfaces are like trampolines; wood, on the other hand, absorbs a lot of the energy of a falling object before imparting a portion of it back. As a result, some items can travel great distances. If you drop an item on carpet, nine out of 10 times it will end up within a 20-inch circle from the point of impact; if the same item is dropped on vinyl or wood, 35% of them can end up as far away as 60 inches.

— Light, color, and size also play a major role in the success of any search. Dropped items don’t maliciously seek out black holes, dark crevices, and recessed nooks. But they often end up in these places. Use a flashlight. While intense light can illuminate an obscured object, it can also produce shadows and help an object blend into its surroundings. To avoid these problems, move a light source along a consistent, overlapping, back and forth path until an entire search area is covered.

Finally, of all the investigative techniques to employ when things go missing, don’t forget PERSISTENCE. If you doggedly, tenaciously, and stubbornly set your mind to finding something, it is likely to eventually reappear — somewhere.

Godfrey Harris, a resident of Encino, is a Los Angeles management consultant who has had more than 60 books published in the fields of public policy and business.