Book Review – Science Ink: Tattoos Of The Science Obsessed

In 2007, Carl Zimmer asked readers of his popular blog, The Loom, to share the stories behind their scientific tattoos. The results were overwhelming, and he collected not only hundreds of photos of tattoos but also the intriguing stories and explanations behind them. The result is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed, a book that inhabits the space where science meets artistic expression. Science Ink is a fascinating work that subtly skewers stereotypes of scientists and, in the process, tells us more than a little bit about tattoo culture.

Lauren Caldwell’s tattoo of Giovanni de’ Dondi’s 1364 designs for the first Astrium.

A vague but persistent sentiment exists that science is stuffy and impersonal. Similarly, tattoo art is too often relegated to the world of “low culture”, a term that has become more pejorative than descriptive. Both are unfortunate misconceptions that Science Ink dispels by presenting hundreds of examples of tattoos and accompanying stories.

Talk to scientists – really get them going about their work – and you’ll find a surprising number of true romantics beneath the lab coats.

You’ll find individuals whose interest in their work stems from a view of scientific ideas as absolutely awe-inspiring. There’s poetry hidden in the implications of Dirac’s Equation and profound beauty to be found within spirals of DNA, though most of us might not recognize it – it’s all in the rather esoteric nature of the field. Pop culture often positions the world of science in opposition to things like imagination, creativity, and pure emotion, straw-manning scientific minds as dismissive of abstractions and ultimately inhuman. But people aren’t that simple, nor are art and science.

Science Ink
Science Ink

Michael Raasch’s design features his name spelled out in amino acids encoded in DNA.

Tattoo art, like all art, is about expression. There’s no more personal canvas than one’s own body, and images inked on the skin often carry a profound significance to the people sporting them. The barbed wire, hearts, and skulls of tattoo shop clichés are certainly common, but there’s so much more going on in the tattoo world, so many strikingly unique designs and so many fascinating stories to accompany them. People ink beautiful, profound images on their bodies. Scientists find science to be beautiful and profound. It’s really just as simple as that. The tattoos found in the pages of Science Ink were, ultimately, inevitable.

Jessica Pikul, a Chemistry Ph.D. student at the University of Washington, is a celiac, a disease Zimmer succinctly describes as “a disorder in which eating gluten triggers the immune system to attack the intestines.” Pikul’s tattoo represents this side of herself alongside her fascination with chemistry, resulting in a striking and unique design that has some muscle to its motivation. Pikul writes:

“The tattoo on my leg is one of the segments of the gluten protein that I cannot digest. The ball and stick molecule are of a Proline-Serine-Glutamine-Glutamine peptide that I can’t break down, which then stimulates T-cells to start the fun chain reaction that ends in my small intestine villi being attacked by antibodies. The background of the molecule is an artsy space-scape. I chose this to speak to the universality of the physical laws that govern the microscopic and macroscopic, an idea that has kept me excited about chemistry and in the lab to this day (and hopefully longer).”

A half crash course in science, half body art gallery, each of Science Ink’s pages features photos of tattoos, accompanied by the personal stories behind them, as well as Zimmer’s concise explanations of the relevance of each scientific concept included.

Not all of the people featured in the book are scientists themselves, though the majority are. The focus here is on the tattoos themselves and what they represent to these individuals. Jim Adams, manager of Nautilus Tattoos in Newington, Connecticut, for instance, has a full back piece of the extinction of dinosaurs.

He describes his inspiration for the design in Science Ink:

I’ve been obsessed with dinosaurs ever since I was a little kid, and I had intentions of doing a large scale dinosaur-themed tattoo. One night it came to me that I should do the extinction of them. I figured it would be a pretty epic looking scene but on a deeper level is a reminder that humanity as a whole is not as invincible as we think we are.

As a scientific primer, it’s surprisingly accessible. A hallmark of science writers of Zimmer’s caliber is basic readability for those without much knowledge of the field. Science Ink is certainly no replacement for a degree in biochemistry, but it’s not meant to be – readers come away with enough to understand what’s remarkable about each concept explored. These explanations are complemented by personal comments from the people in the photos, lending the whole affair a personal quality that is only appropriate for any thoughtful discussion of tattoo art. The photos themselves are of high quality. The chosen designs are unique and, more often than not, gorgeous. Give it a few months, and we’ll probably see copycats of a number of these designs.

For example, of Gabriel Pato’s tattoo of neurons, Zimmer writes:

The brain is a network. Neurons send signals to thousands of other neurons, and it is the number and the strength of those connections from which our thoughts emerge. There is no single homunculus-like neuron in which a person’s mind resides. There is not even a single neuron for memories, or for smells, or for joy. Instead, our perceptions flow into layered networks, and out of that network come responses. If you hike too far into the brain, you lose the forest for the trees.

The end result is a science book that doesn’t feel anything like a textbook and a tattoo art book that differs substantially from anything else of its kind. The flood of pictures and stories that Zimmer received in collecting material for Science Ink is a testament to the fascination that both science and tattoo art stir in people, and here that energy is played out upon the pages.

Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed is available as of November 2011, in bookstores and online sellers, well in time to snag a copy as a Christmas present for that well-inked loved one or just to spend a lazy autumn afternoon curled up with.

It’s well worth the read, both as a simple pleasure and a unique look at an inspiring cultural phenomenon.

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