Scientific Tattoos: Ancient Tradition, Geeky Interpretation

From the Samoan word, tatu, meaning to mark, a tattoo is part of an ancient and mysterious tradition of self-mutilation. Made by inserting dark, indelible ink into the dermis layer of the skin to change the pigment, tattoos symbolize permanence and make a personal statement; sometimes obscure and sometimes very clear. The old Cole Porter song, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, has taken on a very specific meaning in terms of tattoos. Many famous people have sported tattoos down through history including; Winston Churchill, his mother, Jenny Churchill, David Bowie, Tsar Nicholas, Cher, Thomas Edison and Barry Goldwater, just to mention a few.

Down through history, tattoos have come to mean different things to different people, but science geeks have always seemed to be above the fold of mainstream thought, and tattoos seem somewhat inimical to their approach to the world and its algorithms. Sporting tattoos among the scientific community is a fairly new phenomenon even though tattoos have been a part of the American cultural scene for a very long time.

Scientific tattoos share one quality with all other tattoos and that is they each have a deep and very personal meaning for their owners. For some, the depiction of an atom or molecule on a body part says it all; for others, a more abstract image or an emotional connection to the work they do is the subject matter of a scientific tattoo. Some other common themes include: physics and mathematical theorems, bones and veins shown through skin and chemistry’s complex structures.

A journalist named Carl Zimmer developed a project concerning whether scientists got tattoos related to their field of research, and scientists and researchers responded to his query with so many images that he put them on permanent display at the Science Tattoo Emporium.

Tattoos are no longer for the renegades, sailors and outlaws among us, and they have evolved to a level of sophistication that is quite remote from the simple tattoos of the last century. Perhaps for the science geek, sporting a tattoo involving a mathematical equation or portrait of a favorite scientist is both a benefit and a curse. By having to explain what it means to all who see it, one can foster a pet cause and/or direct the conversation to a favorite subject.

One thing is certain. A great deal of thought goes into a scientific tattoo. The only problem is what happens if a theory represented proudly on a forearm is discredited in the future? What would any self-respecting scientist in search of pure truth do?

Aye there is the rub (and I do mean rub).

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