Brain Candy

Get Inked For Science

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Writer Carl Zimmer became an "unintentional curator" of science-themed tattoos after noticing a double helix on a friend's arm. Sensing a trend, he asked his blog readers to send photos of their science tattoos. Some of those images are gathered in his new book Science Ink.


Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Thinking about a tattoo? Well, forget butterflies, unicorns or mom. Tattoos have gone geek. No more of those blurry anchors and pinup girls. We've got molecules, double-helix strands, mathematical equations all showing up on biceps and other places.

Need some inspiration for your science-themed tattoo? You can find ideas in a new book called "Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed," a collection of tattoos. You can check out some images on our website at and click on the SciArts tab on SCIENCE FRIDAY. Or you can share with Carl Zimmer. He's the author of a book here, "Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed." He's with me here in our New York studios. Thanks for coming in, Carl.

CARL ZIMMER: Oh, thanks for having me.

FLATOW: How did the idea of science of tattoos, all these science-related tattoos, come up?

ZIMMER: Well, one day I just saw a scientist with a tattoo. It was a neuroscientist named Bob Data(ph) from Harvard, and he had a DNA tattoo on his shoulder, and I complimented him on it, and I said, well, I guess that makes sense because you study genes in the brain, and so it's DNA, genes, problem solved.

And he said no, no, no, you don't understand. And he proceeded to explain to me how he had encoded his wife's initials in the DNA strand on his shoulder. And suddenly I realized that there was this whole subculture out there of very, very geeky scientific tattoos.

And you actually have listed it - by chapters. You've got math, physics, chemistry, astronomy, Earth sciences, DNA.

FLATOW: We've got just about every branch of science covered here, I think.

ZIMMER: And they've got just about every kind of thing in these tattoos.

I was continually surprised. I continue to be surprised. People keep emailing me these things. I probably have over 1,000 in my email inbox.

FLATOW: And then rich color photos of these tattoos, and some of them are mathematical equations.

ZIMMER: That's right.

FLATOW: Like some of them almost have a whole thesis on there, right?

ZIMMER: Some of them literally are a thesis. You know, people tend to - when they get a Ph.D., they like to celebrate, and so if they studied, say, a particular molecule, put that molecule on your body.

FLATOW: And some of them are very simple, but they're sort of elusive in their meaning. There's one about a trowel, and the author writes, you know, you'd think I was a biker or a mason to have a trowel on here, he says, but I'm an archeologist. That's his tool, right?

ZIMMER: That's right, that's right, and so any other archeologist who would look at that tattoo would know that they're the member of the same tribe. You know, this is – you know, this is something that they all use all the time.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 if you - maybe you have a tattoo you would like to talk about or have an idea for one. So you had to basically weed out all these tattoos you couldn't use then. It must have been difficult figuring out what to keep and what not to keep.

ZIMMER: Well, I mean, at first I had no idea how many tattoos about science there are out there. I mean, I've talked to scientists for years now, and it never occurred to me that they were hiding tattoos from me.


ZIMMER: So I took a picture of this first tattoo, this DNA tattoo from Bob Data, I put it on my blog, and I just posed a question: Does anybody else out there, any other scientist have a tattoo? And immediately I started getting flooded with these images. I started putting them on my blog, and then after a while it was clear that a book was called for.

But yeah, you know, after a while you have so many that you start to need to find a way to weed through them.

FLATOW: Now, I know you like history of science like I do; history of science is one of my popular topics.

Is that reflected in your tattoo collection?

ZIMMER: Oh, big time, yes. There are all sorts of historical images. So for example, Charles Darwin in his notebooks, in I believe it was 1839, drew out a tree of life. This was as his theory of evolution was coming together. And so this is really an iconic image, and I got a whole bunch of tattoos of that exact reproduction of that notebook sketch on people's bodies.

A whole bunch of evolutionary biologists have that particular tattoo. Other people have tattoos from Vasalius. There was a famous zoologist named Ernst Haeckel who drew beautiful pictures in the 1800s of all kinds of forms of life. Tons of people have Haeckel tattoos. So there's a lot of history in these pictures.

FLATOW: Talking with Carl Zimmer, author of "Science Ink." Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Ken in Clarkesville, Tennessee. Hi, Ken, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Hi, Ken. Yes, go ahead.

KEN: OK, I just wanted to give out my idea for a tattoo. They were giving free – well, not free tattoos, but before Christmas they were giving out tattoos to people who brought in toys. And that sort of made me think about it, and my idea for a tattoo is Euler's (unintelligible) atomic equation.

FLATOW: Euler's equation.

KEN: It's E raised to the power of I times pi plus one equals zero.

ZIMMER: Yeah, this is - you saw - sometimes called Euler's identity. It's a beautiful, short little equation. And guess what? There are a whole bunch of people out there with that tattoo. I think I have three or four of those in the book. It's such a beautiful equation. It's so short and yet so powerful.

FLATOW: All right, Ken, thanks for - are you going to get one, Ken?

KEN: Maybe next Christmas.


KEN: If they still have that deal going.


FLATOW: All right, thanks for calling. Of course, Carl, your next book could be the science of how you get rid of tattoos.

ZIMMER: Right.


FLATOW: Don't you think with all these people getting tattoos that there's going to be a point where it's not a fad anymore, and people are going to be stuck? But they're so beautiful.

ZIMMER: Well, this is sort of a self-selected group of people who are very proud of their tattoos who send them to me. I doubt that any of these people are going to get them taken off. And in fact there are a few, you know, tenured professors, some with gray beards, who are in the book as well. You know, so you can survive to old age as a scientist and keep your tattoo intact.

FLATOW: Let's go to Bill in Adrian, Michigan. Hi, Bill.

BILL: Hi, I'm a physician, and during my years in medicine a lot of my fellow colleagues have gotten tattoos of defibrillator paddles with a line through them to indicate that they would not want advanced life support. You know, a lot of us having been in medicine long enough and seeing the bad outcomes that happen and how, you know, how people stay on ventilators for long periods of times, we don't want that.

So people will get a tattoo right there on their chest where they would put the paddle, telling people don't do that. So I just wanted to share that.

FLATOW: Sort of a permanent DNR.

ZIMMER: Tattoo as operating instructions.

BILL: ...DNR right there.

FLATOW: All right, thanks for that hint. 1-800-989-8255. Let's - lots of people with ideas. Let's go to Brian in Missoula, Montana. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN: Hi, how's it going?

FLATOW: Fine, how are you?

BRIAN: I'm pretty good. I had a quick question about fractal tattoos.

FLATOW: OK, go ahead.

BRIAN: I just wanted to see if he saw any when he did the research for his book and, say, how many levels of complexity you could go to, if he's ever seen, say, a Julia set to three levels of complexity or anything of that type.

ZIMMER: The answer is yes. So fractals are these beautiful geometrical shapes that have - are sort of infinitely rugged, and the more you zoom in on them, the more detail you see on them. And so yes, there's this particular fractal called the Julia set. I have Julia sets sent to me.

The question I always have is, you know, how detailed of a tattoo can you get if something is infinitively detailed? It might be a tricky thing for a tattoo. But, you know, some of these tattoos are so extraordinarily detailed that I suppose you could do it.

FLATOW: Yeah, thanks for calling. In fact, I'm looking at one now called Mass Extinctions. It's the whole back of somebody.

ZIMMER: Yeah, so 65 million years ago, an asteroid slams into Earth, the dinosaurs become extinct, and so someone decided to dedicate his entire back to that cataclysmic event. And so there you go.

FLATOW: And also a bird-like dinosaur's head, really gorgeous tattoos.

ZIMMER: Yeah, yeah, a lot of people were really drawn to, say, Archaeopteryx, that classic bird-like dinosaur. And, you know, there's actually a real gorgeous dinosaur called Deinonychus, maybe one of the most beautiful tattoos in the book. Unfortunately, it's kind of reptilian scales on it.

We know now that Deinonychus had feathers on it. So he's going to have to go in and re-inked, I think.


FLATOW: This is like asking, right, the question about which child is your favorite. But I'm sure you've been asked which is your favorite tattoo, and then you probably don't have a favorite, or maybe you do.

ZIMMER: Yeah, I page through trying to pick them, and I say, oh, I like that one; no, I like that one. I think in general I like the ones that tell you a lot about the scientist, him or herself. And some of them are funny, but some of them are quite poignant, actually.

So just to give you one example, there's a neuroscientist named Lindsey Reese(ph) who has a neuron on her foot. Now, that might seem obvious to you, but there's a deeper story there. It's a particular kind of neuron that we use to send messages to our body to move our bodies around. That's the kind of neuron that dies when people get Lou Gehrig's disease.

So this woman's father actually died of Lou Gehrig's when she was 18, and that's what made her decide to become a neuroscientist. So this tattoo is really about her loss, her life and her science all in one.

FLATOW: I have to ask this question because I know people have asked me: Are there tattoos or places on the body you could not put in your book that were tattooed?

ZIMMER: Oh, um, yeah, yeah. There were a few where I just said, well, this is not going in the book, you know, certain full-body tattoos, for example. Like thanks but...

FLATOW: Full-body tattoos?

ZIMMER: Oh yeah.

FLATOW: And scientists. Scientists. Do you have to be a scientist to send in stuff, or you had non-scientists sending in tattoos?

ZIMMER: I had all sorts of people sending in tattoos. Most of the book - tattoos in the book happen to be from scientists, but there are some non-scientists as well. But no, I've had full-body tattoos from scientists sent to me.

FLATOW: Are you going to be collecting any more? You must have a lot more you could out. Could you put a second volume out?

ZIMMER: At the rate...

FLATOW: Especially after hear people hear today?

ZIMMER: At the rate things are going, you could definitely come out with a second volume.

FLATOW: And could you think of - can you - is there a class of tattoos you're looking for? Or is there a category that is underrepresented that you think that you'd like...

ZIMMER: Yeah, I think I need more geology. There are a few really cool ones. Like there's a seismograph of the San Francisco earthquake.

FLATOW: No kidding?

ZIMMER: Yeah, it's really cool. And there are a couple other, but there aren't enough. I need more geology, I think.

FLATOW: More geology. Maybe somebody's got the Grand Canyon.

ZIMMER: They might, they might, they might. What I don't need, what I definitely do not need are tattoos of the number pi. Lots of people do that, and God bless them, but I don't need any more pictures in my email box of pi. Like great, OK, pi, let's move on.

FLATOW: But has anybody actually - you're talking about the symbol, or are you talking about the number that's been taken out to 100 digits or something like that?

ZIMMER: Well, that's pretty cool. Actually, somebody in the book has his whole arm is filled up with numbers in pi. That shows dedication.


FLATOW: That's right. And I guess the tattoo artists now are getting educated too about - once they write these things on the...

ZIMMER: Yeah, well one thing that scientists tend to tell me is that they come in to these tattoo parlors, and they get into these long conversations. I mean, you know, when you decide that you are going to have, you know, DNA splayed across your back, you're going to be spending a lot of time with the DNA - I'm sorry, a tattoo artist.

And they get to talking, and they have these long conversations about science, and the tattoo artists that I've spoken to, they really get into it when this happens.

FLATOW: Become double-helix experts. Thank you, Carl.

ZIMMER: Thank you.

FLATOW: It's "Science Ink" by Carl Zimmer, forward by Mary Roach, and it's tattoos of the science obsessed - great, great picture book and great colors, and maybe you'll get some ideas, and maybe you'll send Carl an idea for his volume two. Thanks again.

ZIMMER: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: We're going to take a break, and when we come back, we're going to switch gears and talk about surgery with a surgeon who's written a book called "Confessions of a Surgeon: The Good, the Bad, and the Complicated: Life Behind the OR Doors." What happens when you're out? You're in the surgery room and you're out, you can't see what's happening. He's going to tell us. So stay with us. We'll be right back.

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