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
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

booksReview: Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
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.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments