The Toronto Star: Science Ink FTW, Science Books FTL

First the good news.

Saturday's Toronto Star had a really nice little piece on the trend among some Toronto-area science grad students to get a sign of their scientific passion tattooed onto their bodies.

T.D. MacDonald fact-checked the design five times before he let one drop of ink penetrate his skin.

"I didn't want to have an incorrect chemical structure on my body," he says, recounting the long hours he spent creating his tattoo. "The way it is oriented in space had to be right."

That his ink is accurate matters to him, of course.

But few of us would know the strangely beautiful tattoo that encircles MacDonald's upper right arm is composed of amino acids -- let alone whether they were in the correct configuration.

Tattoos, traditionally proclamations of passion, are no less so for scientists like MacDonald who, beneath lab coats and t-shirts, are baring their skin to get a permanent emblem of their infatuations, whether mathematical equation or phylogenetic tree.

The article is accompanied online by a gallery of some additional tattooed scientists and an interview with Science Ink
author Carl Zimmer.

Q. What tattoos have you seen most often?

A. A lot of DNA tattoos. A lot of people have the number pi. Those are the two most common ones. If someone sends me a tattoo and says, 'Look! I've got pi on my arm!' I have to say, I'm not particularly impressed. Now, on the other hand, if that person has the first 200 digits of pi written out on their arm -- that's nice.

A very cool article, very cool gallery (and a special shout out to York U tweep Jesse Rogerson) and very cool interview. It's also worth noting that Science Online 2012 looks to have an interesting sideline emphasis on science tattoos, mostly due to the perennial presence of Carl Zimmer as an attendee.

And now for the not-so-good news.

As you may know, this time of year I post a whole bunch of Best Science Books 2011 lists here on the blog. They aggregate the sciencey books from all the "Year's Best" lists I can find.

Well, also on Saturday The Star posted its list of the 100 best books of the year, as chosen by their crew of reviewers.

And guess how many science books are on that list?

Zero. Not one single science book. Out of a hundred.

A pathetically limited choice by reviewers with strangely limited tastes.

The list of reviewers, for those that are interested:

  • Sarah Murdoch
  • Michel Basiliere
  • Nancy Wigston
  • Laura Eggertson
  • Christine Sismondo
  • James Macgowan
  • James Grainger
  • Emily Donaldson
  • Barbara Carey
  • Jennifer Hunter

(Jack Batten's top 10 mystery novels was also included in the list.)

The closest thing to a science book was Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence by Michael Parenti which is about human migrations caused by climate change.

I'll admit to being very disappointed with The Star. Their science coverage hasn't been fantastic lately, in any part of the paper. But here, within the very same issue, they are trying to capitalize on a young, hip, sexy "image" for science people while at the same time totally ignoring terrific reporting on the vast amounts of actual science going on in the world. I'm at a loss for words. They should be embarrassed.

For what it's worth, The Globe and Mail did a much better job.

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CNN reports on a survey of the increasing number of people getting tats: The American University employee is among about 36 percent of Americans age 18 to 29 with at least one tattoo, according to a survey. The study, scheduled to appear Monday on the Web site of the Journal of the American Academy…
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When Carl Zimmer asked scientists to send him photos of their scientific tattoos, the response was huge, as was the interest in the photos he collected - together, the original post on his blog and the photo set he uploaded to Flickr have been viewed about 200,000 times, and have even been…

Always nice when somebody takes a hit at somebody else for not doing something they were never asked to do. I did not compile a list of ten general interest books but, rather, a list of the ten best food and drink books. That was why it was "strangely limited." My "pathetic" list, incidentally, includes a book closely related to the history of medicine. But perhaps you are too "limited" in your view of science to understand the relationship.

By Christine Sismondo (not verified) on 05 Dec 2011 #permalink

Hi Christine, point taken. However, except for Jack Batten and his selection of mystery novels it wasn't explicit in the Star article what each reviewer was asked to do. Your section didn't say "Food & Drink" so I assumed you were free to choose anything you liked.

As for the Bitters book, you're right. There is a very tenuous science/medicine connection there but from the description on Amazon it's seems to be only a very small part of the book. I don't think anyone would mistake the book for anything other than a social history of an aspect of drinks culture. Which is fine -- if someone gave me the book as a gift I'd be thrilled. As far as the Best Science Books 2011 lists I'm collecting, I'm generally quite liberal on how I define science books but to me, the Bitters book just doesn't seem to be relevant enough to list.

At the end of the day my core point remains valid. There are no real science books among the 100 that the largest daily newspaper in Canada chose to highlight as the best of the year. And that is really disappointing.