Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed


About the Book:

In 2007, Carl Zimmer posed a question on his blog: are scientists hiding tattoos of their science? It turned out that many of them were, and they were willing to share their ink with him and the world. Zimmer has posted hundreds of these images in the years since.  In Science Ink, he assembles his favorite images from his blog, along with previously unpublished ones, and writes about the science behind the pictures, and the scientists behind the science. From archaeology to astronomy, from neuroscience to chemistry, Science Ink is a guide to the universe, illustrated on the bodies of scientists.

A few excerpts I was able to get my hands on.                                                                                  Astrarium, p.71

tat1“Although I’m not a scientist by trade,” writes Lauren Caldwell, “my work on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British literature has provided ample opportunity for me to become acquainted with the work of some brilliant scientific innovators. Though we have discarded some of their ideas, their work retains all of its vital visual force.

“Years ago I discovered and fell in love with the comprehensive diagrams in Giovanni de’Dondi’s 1364 Il Tractatus Astarii, which contained the plans for the first famous astrarium. Each piece has its own delicate mechanical beauty, but I chose for my backpiece the Mercury wheelwork. Of course, you couldn’t track Mercury with it—de’Dondi followed Ptolemy—but his astrarium remains a lovely and impressive testament to human ingenuity and curiosity.

“The more spare geometrical diagrams that surround the de’Dondi piece are taken from Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica—of which little enough, I imagine, need be said. Though in many respects these two men couldn’t have been more different, they shared a vision of a universe as elegant and aesthetically compelling today as it was when they lived and worked.”

Fulvic acid, p.59


“I got this tattoo as an homage to the pain of my graduate work,” writes Corey Ptak. “It’s a model of fulvic acid, which is a representation of natural organic matter in the soil. I work with this molecule for my grad work, and I figured I might as well get it etched into my skin so I can look at it and say, ‘Well, at least it hurt less than grad school at Cornell.'”

Tree of life p.142

“I have been fascinated by the biological world for as long I can remember,” writes Clare D’Alberto, a graduate student in zoology at Melbourne University, “so when I decided to get a tattoo it seemed logical that I look within my field for inspiration. It took 4 ½ hours, and certainly didn’t tickle, but I love that I have such a beautiful representation of evolution and the natural world with me all the time.” The tree of life has changed shape over the years. In nineteenth-century versions, its branches reached upward through time. Today, scientists use DNA to draw the branches of thousands of species at a time. To make space for them all, they must stretch the tree out into a wheel. D’Alberto modeled her tree after a 3,000-species tree created by David Hillis at the University of Texas. She did not have all 3,000 species tattooed on her, obviously, but this simplified version captures the overall shape of the tree. The creatures around the tree represent the five kingdoms—Monera (bacteria), Protista (amoebae and other single-celled organisms), Plantae (plants), Fungi (illustrated here by yeast and the penicillin mold), and animals (a comb jelly, a mollusk, a starfish, and a seadragon fish). Of course, even 3,000 species is only a tiny fraction of the full diversity of life—1.8 million known species, and perhaps 10 or 20 million more to be discovered. If the current trends of discovery hold up, most of that diversity will be made up of bacteria. So future tattoos will need more microbes and fewer sea-dragons.

Nature wrote in a haunting review

“Science Ink is packed with fascinating stories. One of the most moving is Abigail’s. A chemistry student, she sent in a photo of her tattoo — the word ‘entropy’ inked on her back. A few months later, her mother sent Zimmer a note saying that Abigail had died in a car accident and that she was getting her daughter’s tattoo replicated on her own body. That blog post and the comments it generated became a memorial for Abigail, and eventually led to a posting by a woman whose mother had received Abigail’s lungs after her death.We call tattoos permanent, but they last only as long as the body that wears them survives. Abigail’s tattoo has a life beyond her own: the design now adorns the headstone marking her grave. And it is there in the pages of Science Ink — one of many signs of an enduring fervour for science, and a new chapter in the age-old history of body art.”


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