DNA Tattoos? You Bet!: Carl Zimmer's 'Science Ink'

Photo by Adam Simpson

A lively and visually rich look at science-oriented tattoo art.

Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed

Publisher: Sterling
Length: 270 pages
Author: Carl Zimmer
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2011-11

Carl Zimmer is an outstanding science writer. His earlier books (At the Water's Edge, Parasite Rex, A Planet of Viruses) showcased an ability to present complex concepts in digestible form for non-specialists, and his pithy phrasing makes him a pleasure to read. Science Ink marks something of a departure for Zimmer, though: in this book, the pictures are as important as the words -- or maybe more so.

The pictures in this handsomely produced, coffee-table-for-geeks book focus on tattoos. Specifically, tattoos that scientists, science students and science enthusiasts have affixed to their bodies out of a love of, or a connection to, a particular scientific concept. Intriguing? You bet. Weird? Mmmmaybe.

It all depends on your idea of "weird". Maybe Occam’s Scalpel isn't the sort of thing you would want running forever down the side of your torso, but for the PhD who wears it daily, the injunction to always seek the simplest solution to a problem—written in the original Latin no less—makes perfect sense. Ditto for the graduate student who wears a striking rendition of Mesozoic sea creatures on his shoulder and bicep, or the full-color, allegorical rendition of Ohio swamp plants—quite a beautiful design, really—decorating another woman's side, back and buttocks. (She spent a lot of time in the Ohio wetlands as a grad student.)

There are mathematical formulae and chemical equations, abstract symbols like RFID tags and seismograph readouts, fossils and dinosaurs (hey, cool!) and lines of binary code (hey, considerably less cool!). Designs come in all sizes and formats, from elaborate full-color renditions to modest line drawings. A mathematician covers his back with an elaborate, richly colored mural comprised of a microscope and the myriad images one might witness while peering through it. A researcher at Duke University sports a flowing, flowery image of a jellyfish. Another PhD student, this one earning her doctorate in chemical physics in Germany, wears an understated design of interlocking infinity symbols signifying p orbitals, a type of formation that occurs when two aroms bond together.

Needless to say, this is a terrific book to leaf through. Photos adorn every page, and there are plenty of eye-catching designs to giggle (or cringe) over, serious issues to ponder, and more than a few head-shakers. The sea horse adorning an ankle is undeniably sweet; the same really can't be said of the glottal stop symbol adorning a linguist's pinky. In case you're wondering, it looks a lot like a question mark, without the dot underneath.

Every tat has its story, though, and Zimmer allows the wearers to share theirs. Hearing people explain why they have chosen to adorn themselves forever with this or that scientific concept makes for some fascinating reading. (There are no inked-up psychological concepts on offer here, but there might as well be.) A scientific software engineer in Seattle wears a series of thick vertical lines, which turn out to be the representation of isotropic peaks—a tool that scientists use to identify unknown molecules. The researcher in question, one Damon May, explains the personal significance: "This distribution of 'isotropic peaks' on my calf is what a peptide of mass 2,005 Daltons looks like in a high-resolution spectrometer… 2005 is the year I got married and also the year I gave the corporate world the boot in favor of science."

There are scores of such little anecdotes. Even beyond the personal stories, though, the book is valuable as a primer for basic scientific concepts. This is where Zimmer's strengths as a science writer come to the fore. In order to understand, say, the significance of the Occam's Scalpel tattoo, one has to understand the significance of Occam’s Scalpel, and Zimmer is happy to oblige, in his typically lucid and to-the-point style.

Some concepts are simpler than others—most readers probably know what a seahorse is—so it's enough to have the wearer explain the significance of the creature to him/her. For many others, though, especially the abstract designs from physics, chemistry, genetics and mathematics, the concepts are so arcane that a fair bit of explanation is needed to bring the non-specialist up to speed. (Raise your hand if the phrase "Schrödinger's Cat" means anything to you.)

Despite the relatively esoteric nature of some of the material, Zimmer's writing is never less than lively, and the tattoo connection is a stroke of brilliance—it immediately gives the non-specialist something solid to hang the concept upon, no matter how abstract things get. Even a purely mathematical idea like the golden ratio achieves striking force when displayed visually. (Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so—the are no fewer than four different versions of the tattoo in the book.)

Science Ink ends up being, intentionally or not, a tribute to the passion of those people who dedicate their lives to furthering the boundaries of human knowledge. Growing up, I tended to associate tattoos with surfer dudes, bikers and a certain type of rock star. Times have changed, though, and there are plenty of other messages out there these days. This is a terrific overview of one little corner of that world, as well as a useful primer on some of the basic ideas upholding our understanding of the universe.

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