Scientists' tattoos: The formula for skin ink

A passion for their discipline has led many scientists to have a tattoo of a hard-won formula, or a dinosaur. Nick Duerden looks at a new book dedicated to the niche inky artworks

Carl Zimmer, a noted American science writer and lecturer at Yale University, found himself at a pool party a few years back attended almost exclusively by scientists. Instead of promptly fleeing, he fell into conversation with one after noticing something he hadn’t expected to see: a tattoo on the man’s forearm.

“It was of DNA,” Zimmer explains, “and to me this was interesting because it showed me a side to scientists I didn’t necessarily know about.”

His interest duly piqued, Zimmer took a photograph of it and posted it onto his blog, then asked his blog’s many readers if there were any other scientists out there also concealing skin ink related to their profession. There came a deluge, scientists from all over the world only too happy to share their hitherto largely hidden passions. “It’s as if they couldn’t wait to reveal their secret,” he laughs. There were the neuroscientists with neurons intricately recreated onto their biceps, the biologists with molecules, fish, even remote Hawaiian archipelagos etched across their torsos, and the palaeontologists whose legs had become canvasses for dinosaurs.

Smart art: a cerebral tattoo featured in the book 'Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed' by Carl Zimmer Smart art: a cerebral tattoo featured in the book 'Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed' by Carl Zimmer Zimmer has collected some of the finest examples in a book, Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed, which does everything a good coffee table-cum-toilet book should, crammed as it is full of fascinating photographs that capture the artistry of each alongside helpful text explaining why, for example, Australian biologist Bryan Grieg Fry took his study of venomous sea snakes so seriously that he now has one immortalised on his back alongside the molecular symbol for adrenaline. “Required in abundance,” Zimmer notes, “for his line of research.”

Elsewhere, one Drew Lucas, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cape Town, where he studies the flow of the ocean, has a scientific formula inked into his left leg. “It’s the incompressible form of the conservation of mass equation fluid, also known as the continuity equation,” he helpfully explains. “When people ask what it means, I say it defines flow. For an incompressible fluid, the partial derivative of the velocity of the fluid in the three spatial dimensionals must sum to zero. It therefore concisely states the fundamental nature of a fluid.”

Of course it does, Drew. Mercifully, another scientist here, Colm O’Dushlaine, offers comparative light relief when explaining away his tattoo. An Irish research scientist now based at Harvard, he got a double helix immortalised on his right bicep shortly after completing his PhD on the subject.

“I felt I should have something that records my passion for genetics in the same way another one I have, a Celtic knot, records my ancestry,” O’Dushlaine says.

A year later, he was able to show it off to James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. “He was very surprised by it, I think,” he beams.

Like many scientists, O’Dushlaine was initially wary of discussing his ink with fellow scientists. Many of his own generation, he says (he is 34), have no problem with body art, but the older generation still view it as inappropriate for such studious folk. “In which case, it’s often best to wait until you’ve got tenure before you start revealing it to all...”

Zimmer, a big fan of both science and history, became increasingly fascinated during his research by society’s changing attitudes towards tattoos. “When they first came to the West, they were for a long time downright illegal,” he says.

Nowadays, of course, tattoos no longer represent counter-culture societies as they once did. In a world where we inexplicably allow ourselves to be influenced by Premiership footballers, everyone and their mother has some or other cod Sanskrit hieroglyphics about their body that they hope – but never quite can fully confirm – translates into a variation of “peace and love”.

Tattoo artists, it turns out, are no better at spelling than the rest of us. But scientists, says Zimmer, take the whole business very seriously indeed. Research occurs.

“This is not a minor undertaking for them, not something they do at midnight when drunk and wake up the next morning wondering what happened. No, they consider these things for years, and it’s often a major collaboration between scientist and artist to get it just right.” Accuracy, he explains, is critical. “Scientists can be pretty ruthless when it comes to critiquing other science tattoos.”

Seven years ago, a geographer called Marina Islas from the University of Austin, Texas, had a map of the world immortalised across her back. “I was in love with the world,” she says, “and wanted to have it tattooed on my back to honour that love.”

Far from hiding it, Islas often shows it off by wearing backless dresses. “I take pride in my body,” she says. Colleagues are impressed.

“At the Annual Meeting of the Association of Geographers, I often get compliments, and I’ve heard comments such as: ‘That’s dedication!’”

But there is a downside to having such ornate body art on frequent show. “There are times when strangers approach me and touch my back,” Islas admits. “It’s very rude.”

David Beckham presumably suffers similarly.

‘Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed’, by Carl Zimmer (Sterling, £12.99)

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?