Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed

  • Carl Zimmer
Sterling: 2011. 288 pp. $24.95, £16.99 9781402783609 | ISBN: 978-1-4027-8360-9

Tattoos were taboo until recently in the West — seen by most as the barbaric practice of marginalized or underworld groups. Now, tattooing is undergoing a renaissance. Almost mainstream in Europe and North America, tattoos are becoming ever more artistically sophisticated and personally meaningful.

Carl Zimmer's beautiful new book, Science Ink, focuses on tattoo culture among scientists, both amateur and professional. Zimmer, himself a tattoo-free science writer, began asking researchers to send photographs of their science-related tattoos to The Loom, his blog for Discover Magazine, in August 2007. These, and the stories behind them, evolved into Science Ink.

A biology graduate's back carries a reminder that DNA gave rise to all the biodiversity on Earth. Credit: M. QUAST

The book is broadly organized by discipline, featuring photos of tattoos themed to each — astronomy, chemistry, evolution, natural history, neuroscience and palaeontology. The scientists are using their body art to mark their standing as members of these 'tribes': so you see stars on astronomers, bacteria on biochemists, insects on entomologists and equations and symbols on mathematicians. And there are molecules of every type, including pages of double helices.

Some designs are iconic, such as E = mc2; or personal, like the chemist's tattoo of the molecular structure of phenobarbital, a drug he gives to his cat to control its seizures. One Loom reader sent in a sequence of zeroes and ones — the name of his daughter Lain in binary code. Some of the tattoos are simple line drawings. Many are colourful and stunningly detailed — such as the elaborate picture on a mathematician's back of a microscope and the usually hidden world it reveals.

These decorated scientists join a tradition that is both venerable and near universal. The earliest evidence for tattooing dates back to Neolithic Eurasia. From there it probably spread from the Middle East to the Pacific Islands, and later to the Americas, by way of India, China and Japan. By 3,000 years ago it was found almost everywhere, and today remains rare only in sub-Saharan Africa.

As permanent body art, similar to scarification, tattoos typically marked permanent or semi-permanent aspects of social position, such as rank or marital status. Today, they still serve this purpose, among others. As I wrote in Bodies of Inscription (Duke University Press, 2005), when the middle classes began getting tattoos, they also began to create “tattoo narratives”: stories relating why they got the tattoo, how long they had thought about it, the genesis of the design and its meaning, the tattooing experience and what the tattoo means to them now.

For professionals, these narratives are particularly important. As trailblazers in their class, they need to create new meanings for their tattoos; underworld or working-class narratives are not relevant to them. New narratives are important for personal as well as social and 'tribal' reasons — the scientists don't want their choices to seem random or impulsive.

Many of the scientists' designs are not easily understandable without knowing the story behind them. For example, the tattoo that inspired Zimmer's quest was a double helix acquired by one of his friends, a neurobiologist. But it isn't just any DNA: it also spells out the name of that friend's wife. Another couple featured in the book have matching tattoos of chromosomes splitting during meiosis; those with no basic understanding of biology would have a hard time grasping the literal or metaphorical meaning of their squiggles without a narrative.

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.