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The Art of Science Tattoos

by on April 17, 2012

Websites herding pictures of nerd tattoos are in no shortage on the internet; but Carl Zimmer’s Science Tattoo Emporium was always something special. Zimmer didn’t just want snapshots: he wanted to know the stories and the science behind those tattoos. Now Zimmer has compiled many of the best science tattoos he found into a book called Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed, and I am telling you, Nerd to Nerd, to check it out.

Pictured: Lauren Caldwell, tattooed with diagrams from Giovanni de’Dondi’s 1364 Tractatus Astrarii and Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica.

Tattoos can have great significance to the people who get them: the names of loved ones, groups they’ve belonged to, or significant places they’ve been… things they want to remember forever. But there’s something unique about science tattoos.

“In the case of scientists, [a tattoo] seems to be something about what keeps them doing science,” said Zimmer in an interview. “Science is a very intense way of life. And its not terribly rewarding financially, and it’s a huge a mount of work. You might have to travel up the amazon just to get the thing you want to study and so on. So the tattoos kind of show what keeps these scientists passionate.”

Pictured: Jeremy Drewell.

Science Ink is also a physically beautiful book. Zimmer talked with some book designers before he decided to turn his online tattoo database into something physical. “Eventually, we realized that it would be a lot of fun just to make an incredibly beautiful book,” he said. “And I think it was partly kind of a response to the changes in publishing these days, you know because there’s so much focus on e-books.  The physical book is about to disappear and we thought: let’s buck that trend and just make a really beautiful book.”

Pictured: Jim Adams.

Even if you aren’t a scientist, you may find some kindred spirits in Science Ink. Like Mark Yturralde (pictured below), who had the names of the astronauts from the Columbia, Challenger and Apollo 1 space shuttles tattooed on his forearm.

“Space has always meant so much to me, and I felt I wanted to memorialize them somehow,” said Yturralde in the book. “It just struck me: I’ll put their names on my forearm. People will see them. They’ll ask who they are…Everytime someone asks, and I explain it, they take a second. They reflect. They remember.”

The book is also a great, great science book. Zimmer is one of the best science writers out there, and he has incredible material to work with here. The stories hit every broad subject in the scientific landscape. They’re short and sweet but they also get at the heart of these subjects.

“You look at these tattoos and read about the stories behind them you end up learning about everything from quantum physics to the invention of the phonograph to ecology to how the brain works,” said Zimmer.

Pictured: Tyler Rollins.

From Science Ink: “Tyler Rollins, a musician, wears the drawing that accompanied a patent granted to Thomas Edison on February 19, 1878. ‘I think that this invention goes mostly under-appreciated,’ writes Rollins. ‘This was the first phonograph! The first thing that could record and playback sounds, voices, music!’”

Pictured: Jimmy Ou.

From Science Ink: “This is… Occam’s Razor in its original Latin text — Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate — roughly translated, ‘plurality should never be posited without necessity.’”

“I think a lot of times the tattoos people get involve something at the core of the kind of science that they do,” said Zimmer. “So, a physicist might look for the the one equation that really sums up what’s so beautiful about quantum physics. And so you start to find yourself learning about the foundations of science itself, though tattoos. I mean I never would have thought that.”

All photos courtesy of Carl Zimmer and Sterling Publishing.