Branded with Science

i-46d9899d17bd9c3662dd04fdbd70093c-datta crop.jpgThe other day I was pondering how scientists tattoo themselves with their science. I was at a pool party where a friend, Bob Datta, had jumped into the water with his kids. Datta is a post-doc at Columbia, where he studies genes in Drosophila flies. I noticed that Bob had a tattoo of DNA on his shoulder. At first I thought it was a generic snippet of the molecule, but then Bob told me that it actually represents, in the genetic code, his wife's initials: EEE. Geek love in its noblest form. [For the gorey specifics, see Bob's comment below.]

Bob's tatoo reminded me that I have seen other scientists festooned with their science. There was the mycologist whose arms were covered with a black mesh, which he explained to me was subterranean network of threads produced by the death cap mushroom. And then there was the developmental biologist whose arm is swathed in the image of the fish he studies. (He declined my request for a photo of the tattoo until he gets tenure.)

So I'm wondering now--have I bumped into the tip of a vast hidden iceberg, or do I just happen to know the few scientists with tattoos of their science? If anyone wants to send me a jpg, I'll post it. If you're worried about tenure, just let me know how the tattoo represents the object of your study. The more personal the link, the better (i.e., not a generic tattoo of pi).

Below the fold: the iceberg unveiled!

Update, 9/2/07: The response to my question has been so rabid that I've moved all the pictures to a Flickr set. Feel free to send me yours--either post in the comment thread, or email it to blog at carlzimmer dot com.

Update, 2/18/08: The tattoos are moving to a new home: Carl Zimmer's Science Tattoo Emporium. The request for your science tattoo still stands.

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A postdoc in my old lab had a friend (an E. coli geneticist) with a DNA tattoo as well. It was the lac operator. :-)

By Mike Gray (not verified) on 06 Aug 2007 #permalink

I don't have it yet, but I plan on getting an infinite tessellation by Escher, of butterflies. I'm a computer scientist/aspiring researcher, and this will represent the intersection of math and biology that has become my interest. Maybe someday people won't see my double major as such a schizophrenic move :)

By meerasedai (not verified) on 06 Aug 2007 #permalink

A former student got a tattoo of a cartoon atom (like this)on the back of one of his legs. He told me that the first day after he got it, he went to rugby practice, adn was showing it to someone when one of the seniors on the team (also a Physics major) walked by.

The senior looked at it, said "Oh, please. The Bohr model?" and walked off...

I am a developmental psychologist specializing in infant cognition and once dated a auditory neuroscientist. We knew we would hit off when on our very first date we both agreed that the Necker cube, as well as being one of the most psychologically profound optical illusions there is, would make an excellent tattoo. So on our fourth date, we went and got matching copies.

You see it happening here:

We didn't stay together very much longer but both still love our tattoos. Especially, showing them off at conferences.

I used to have the positive/negative light rendition of a perfect circle on my back. But now it's covered up by my wife's hand print along with my son's hand print.

I've seen many scientists here with science-related tattoos. I'll have to see if they will contribute. Some have planets and solar systems, others with DNA or other genetics-related tattoos. Oddly enough, it seems like almost all of the scientists I know have more tattoos than regular tattooed folk.

JD: Sure you don't want to get that on your forehead>?

I've thought it might be cool, as an electrical engineer, to be tattooed with Maxwell's Equations (in differential form). But I've passed on them, because while they do represent my field, they don't have much personal meaning for me or anything. Quite unlike the EEE gene tattoo, which is extremely clever.

I don't if this counts as science-related, but Caltech's Christof Koch has an Apple logo on his arm.

By Becky Oskin (not verified) on 06 Aug 2007 #permalink

In the first pic, I see 12 base pairs, and there are 3 letters in "EEE". Did he incorporate a start or stop codon sequence in there too?

Joshua: ha! I usually remember to mention where I got the idea, guess it was a little early in the morning. I'll get it on my forehead when I become a big blue god-like physical anomaly.

Back when I still worked as a Fisheries Technician, I had a brook trout tattooed on my calf. (No pics available at the moment.)

By vandalhooch (not verified) on 06 Aug 2007 #permalink

I knew someone in this crowd would ask about the 12 bases but three codons thing! So, 3 codons don't give you two turns (wanted to approximate real DNA dimensions), so I needed at least four codons, all of which in this case are E (the single letter code for glutamate). E translates into GAG or GAA (I went with GAG GAA GAG GAA for variety), and used the colors green for G and amber for A. The complementary bases were coded C=Cyan and T=Tomato Red (ok, a bit of a stretch). So, you can see from the left - following one strand - Green Amber Green Green Amber Amber, etc.

My wife's first name is Eliza, and is known affectionately as Li, so I'm thinking seriously of getting a second tattoo (the first was her engagement present to me in exchange for the ring) of a Bohr model of a lithium atom. Helps too that we have two kids (so 1 Li + 1 Theo + 1 Jasper = 3).

By Bob Datta (not verified) on 06 Aug 2007 #permalink

I was going to get a tattoo of the constellation of Orion to look like a group of freckles on my left inner forearm, going so far as to pay a deposit, book an appointment and submit a design, but my husband passive-agressived me out of it as he doesn't like tattoos. The sacrifices we make. :/

By Willo the Wisp (not verified) on 06 Aug 2007 #permalink

This might make us too easy to round up when Ken Ham decides to put us in camps. I don't want to end up a lamp shade in the cretinist museum.

I have a resistor symbol tattooed to my wrist because I'm a tech geek and used to play in a punk band. It was our symbol... haha "resist". Yeah. So I basically have a pun tattooed to my wrist.

You can find lots of science/geek/tech tattoos on in their tattoo galleries. It has become quite a standard rite of passage!

By sciencebystander (not verified) on 06 Aug 2007 #permalink

At Reed College in their Chemistry department, there are photos of all the seniors who thesised in the department going back to the late 80s. In one photo, a student has the Schrödinger Wave Equation tattooed on his uppper arm.

The ninth tattoo, FYI, comes from Troy Roepke, who emailed it to me with a note:

"Greetings! Here's a pic of my science tat. I studied sea urchin development for my dissertation. Upon completion 2 yrs ago, I awarded myself this tat for my academic achievement. The tat is of a sea urchin egg, 2 cell embryo, blastula, gastrula, prism stage and pluteus larval stage. Or as my friend's say, an orange developing into an Alien face-grabber."

in a former life i graduated with bs's in microbiology and zoology. i worked for a short time as a lab monkey in a plant path lab doing microscopy. someday, if/when i find my brain again, i intend go to gradual school and do something with molecular biology. before i graduated, i committed my love of biology to ink and flesh.

this is my tat:…
it is representative not only of my interest in genetics, but it also contains my and my husband's initials. (awwwwww)

interestingly enough, just last night i posted on my own blog about the history of my current ink and the prospects for future tats. i haven't figured out what they will be yet, but there will be at least three more (or one large one).

p.s. do you know how hard it is to take a picture of the side of one's own ankle while holding said appendage off the ground so no one can see my dirty kitchen floor in the background?

Neat! I do feel a little unoriginal now, though -- I've been planning to get a DNA tattoo for some time now (expensive project, since I want it to go all the way up my arm, down my back, and down my leg), and now I feel like I've been scooped.

None at the moment, though. Current tattoos are either literary or historical: a labyrinth on my sternum, and a Jabberwock on my arm.

Greta, what does a jabberwock look like? (is it anything like a boojum, say?)

I have quite a collection of insect tattoos on my right arm, starting with a cicada when I finished my PhD.
Thanks for the photos!

Great idea Carl,

I have several tatoos, all done before science was ever a spark in my mind. One is of two Kraken (although they were dragons when I got them done. But since I am a deep-sea biologist, they are now Kraken). The other is the Biohazard sign. I posted them on my blog here.

"Greta, what does a jabberwock look like?"

I took my tattoo from the original Tenniel illustration, minus the background. The artist had to adapt it somewhat to make it tattoo-friendly (all that cross-hatching would just turn to soup), but it's a remarkably faithful translation. And it looks really, really terrifying. Here's a link: not to my tattoo, of which I don't currently have any pictures online, but of the original Tenniel drawing.

And while I've passionately loved both this boook and this drawing since I was very young, I somehow never noticed until I got the tattoo that the Jabberwock is wearing a vest.

Re: lindy #25


I have a small paramecium on my back. Picture is a bit blurry, but it was taken by my 5-year-old. She can even name some of the features like cilia and the oral groove.

I'm waiting for a programmable tattoo. now that would be ultimate geek cred!

By David Harmon (not verified) on 08 Aug 2007 #permalink

so how does that awesome DNA tattoo stand for "EEE" - as far as I know, the only nucleotides are A, T, G, C, and U. If some combination of those can form letters for some reason, how can that work? And, if so, how come the three series of four pairs are different?

Just curious - as Dr. Datta would know infinitely more than myself...

robert - The one-letter code for the amino acid Glutamic acid is E, and it is coded for by GAA or GAG. I guess that some of the base pairs shown on the tat are meant to represent some combinations of those.


By Rob knell (not verified) on 08 Aug 2007 #permalink


Thats correct, but it looks like it says EEEE

I have Yggdrasil on my back. (just a link to the original picture, not my tattoo)
I decided on Yggdrasil (versus Escher's Moebeus Strip) partly because I love mythology, but also as it is a world tree supporting everything we know, much like mathematics is to our understanding of the world.
Well, that, and because Roger Zelazny uses Ygg in his Chronicles of Amber.

I have a Japanese translation of "Free Electron" on the back of my neck. Actually, it literally translates to "un-encumbered child of the atom"

Once I gather up the funds for it, I'll have a hydrogen atom on the back of my neck(if I remember, I'll send in a photo when I get it) -

Why don't you put on your forehead? It will look even cooler!!!

My hubby started his geek tattoo long ago but still hasn't finished it. He already has a flame with characters that spell out mind inside. The plan is to get a Bunsen burner underneath the flame and then add psychoactive compounds but we're still debating which ones. I'm into glutamate receptors so I want him to add GluR agonists but he likes more the GABA-acting drugs, oh well...
I thought he was going to finish it up this summer but he decided he was going to finally cover his other arm with some ferocious-looking dragon. It's still cool I guess.

I myself have a simple outline of a brain on my back.

Hey wow! that star of david is a scientific symbol? did.not.know.that.

i think getting tattoos to represent a lover is a stupid idea, because at any time they could leave you/divorce you.

I'm going to get Darwin's words from the Origin 'there is grandeur in this view of life' tattooed above my ass, then when Mormons call I can jmoon at them in the porch.

Slightly less science-related, but I know a guy with Euclid's Proposition 1.4 tattooed on his right buttcheek. Also a girl with a "Q.E.D." lower-back tattoo. And a good number of people with tattoos in ancient Greek.

Not precisely scientific, but I did design my first tattoo mathematically using GrafEq: it depicts the interval function ...

(e^sqrt(x^2+y^2))/30000 + mod((sqrt(x^2+y^2) + arctan(y/x) + sin(x) + sin(x-y) + cos(y), pi) is less than pi/2.5

...that is, two Archimedean spirals modulated by a 2D regular sinusoidal pattern, the whole clipped by a radial exponential function). Image here.

How can I submit a science tattoo photo of my own?

Grayce [71]: you can email the image to me, or put a link to an image in the comment thread. As I mentioned at the top, I'm really interested in tattoos that scientists get that illustrate something they study. (i.e., not just a pretty geometrical image)

I'm getting the first 11 fibonacci numbers and symbol Phi tattooed soon, I just have to decide where. (Right now it's a debate between ankle and back of the neck.)

I cleverly disguised my 'science' tattoo as yet-another-asian-character. I had the chinese words yu zhao tattooed over my spine just below the collar-line. Roughly translated (because as Inara says on that Firefly episode, "there are nuances of meaning) it means Cosmos. And just to really geek out - I got the idea from a report done on gravitation submitted to the International Geophysical Union.

By Andrew Krause (not verified) on 09 Aug 2007 #permalink

I guess this is loosely a branch of science...

I was a philosophy major at one point, and while I eventually got my degrees in other fields, I never lost my fascination with the subject, and so my tattoo reflects it. It's two brackets - { } - which in logic means "the empty set", or, all possibilities are open.

picture here

I've got M1 on my right arm, next, I'm getting the Mandelbrot Set on my left arm.

By laur�n (not verified) on 09 Aug 2007 #permalink

Neat stuff. Carl, you could have earned enormous geek currency had you named your essay "She branded me with science."

By FastEddie (not verified) on 09 Aug 2007 #permalink

I have the Arecibo radio message on my left bicep.... I think it's on my blog somewhere. Next I am getting scientific notation instructions of how to build and operate a record player (from Voyager probe). ;D

A girlfriend and I got water molecules on our ankles after we took a year's worth of gen chem in one summer. Mine's the standard "ball and stick" model, while her's is the electrostatic potential map of water. Still deciding on the design of my calculus one (formal definition of the derivative). I'm actually a biology/pre-med major, but calculus (though I love it now) was hard for me, hence the celebratory tattoo.

The periodic table up there is amazing. :)

I really need to get a good photo of mine: back at the end of 1991, shortly after an article I'd written about the Burgess Shale appeared in print, a tattooist friend begged to buy a book I had on building stop-action models, and I joked "I'll trade you a tat for it." Amazingly enough, he took me up on it, so I now have an Anomalocaris on my right shoulder. I'm thinking about going back for more, because a left shoulder bereft of a Nectocaris is an absolute shame.

This was a graduation present to myself. It came to me during a genetics lecture and I got it done 3 years later. It goes ankle to mid thigh. I'm a geneticist now and LOVE it. Genetics stole my heart. P.s. It codes for a snippet of an exon from the sonic the hedgehog gene.¤t=bostonglobe1.jpg¤t=legback3a.jpg

$20 says that Eric (post #69) is/was a St. John's College student.

By Justin H. (not verified) on 09 Aug 2007 #permalink

Justin H., I was thinking exactly the same thing. So, I'm not taking that bet, because you and I obviously are/were also!

When I was a PhD student in philosophy, I did a lot of work in philosophy of science. Not science proper, but after all, philosophy was (and is) the beginning of science. ;)

Anyway, my tattoo is a riff on the history of both science and philosophy-- the hermetic symbols for the Philosopher's Stone (sulfur + mercury + salt, and some sort of time designation). Yep, that's right, alchemy.

Here it is.

Leigh, I never would have bought that philosophy was a science either, until I started to wash out in Symbolic Logic as a freshman Philosophy major at UT.

Alas, my BS in Criminal Justice really affords me no good scientific symbol.

I'm a Chemical Engineer. Amongst my other tattoos, I have a pair (one on each side) on my ribcage. Sigma and Pi. Molecular orbitals are my friends... In the same vein, my cat is called Ion (as in Schroedinger's Cation) :-p

A good friend of mine, a Mechanical Engineer, has her favorite gear on her shoulder... and my Biochemist friend has delta +/-

I have a small rattlesnake on the inside of my elbow - its a tiny thing, but I love it and it is appropriate (as I study snakes). I like that I can teach an entire term in short sleeves and most of my students don't notice it (kind of like a well-camouflaged snake hiding in the grass!).

As the movie 'Pi' has now so clichely put it, "Numbers are the language of nature." As a physicist, I always felt this was one of the most beautiful sentences in that language -- a medley of the five most important numbers. Through an odd turn of events, this is actually my own handwriting from a bar napkin.

my partner and I each have a set of chromosomes on our right wrist; put them together and it's a cell during meiosis (website with photo in the works). thus inspired, I'm collecting tattoos with significance shared by two or more people for a book to be called TATTOOS FOR TWO. (I'm a science writer and published author, and got Carl's permission to post this request.) if you'd like to participate or know others who might, it would be great to hear from you: Ashton Applewhite (girl not boy, btw); 646-644-4040. thanks very much.

By Ashton Applewhite (not verified) on 17 Aug 2007 #permalink

This is amazing! A combination of two of my favorite things (science and tattoos) I have many tattoos but none in my field (microbiology) although I was definitely inspired by a set of plush toys of different bacteria I saw once..who knew staph could look so cute?

On another note though (this would probably be the most appropriate place to try to get an opinion...) would you say that your colleagues are generally accepting of your tattoos?

By christina (not verified) on 17 Aug 2007 #permalink

Well, tattoos may be nice, but will interfere with your donating blood. Many of us do regularly donate blood, don't we? Remember the questions about tattoos and acupuncture? You do answer honestly, right?


Huh. There must be some kind of axiom about Neils and trilobite shoulder tattoos. Well, Marrella isn't a proper trilobite, but awfully close. I got the tattoo shortly after SJ Gould's death. I had settled on the design before he died so it's not quite an homage but I did lift the picture from Wonderful Life. The original figure is by Marianne Collins I believe. The Cambrian "c" was added later, my long-range plan was/is for a whole paleozoic sleeve but I ran out of funding soon. I'd also like to get more 'stem' taxa one of these days.


while rules may be different in different places, here one has to wait for one year after a tattoo before donating blood again. i believe that is the fda's rule, so would apply all across the u.s. i have one tattoo and am still a semi-regular blood donor.

I don't have a pic, but I have a friend who's got the Fibonacci sequence tattooed up her leg. She's a high school math teacher.

Anybody know the name of the font used for the Eppur si muove tattoo?

I wrote an article about this post in my own blog. This is just to weird not to mention. I think my favorite so far is the periodic table.

The hyperbolic plane (H2) is commonly represented in a mapping analogous to a stereographic projection of a sphere. I worked out a mapping analogous to Mercator projection, but have never seen it used; it preserves a line, and maps H2 to a strip. If I ever get a tattoo the most likely is a wristband based on this idea; perhaps a tiling of right-angled pentagons rendered as knotwork.

As an electronic engineer, I got a full-wave rectifier circuit diagram tattooed onto the back of my shoulder for my 30th birthday (actually got it done the day AFTER my birthday, complete with hangover!). Ive lost count of the number of job interviews where Ive been asked to draw this fundamental circuit, when you never actually have to make one yourself, you just buy em off the shelf. Next interview Ill just rip my shirt off instead; might not get the job, but at least theyd remember me!!

Rather late (I found it off a link) and not exactly a scientist, but my calculus teacher has X/[infinity symbol]=0
tattooed on his shoulder, which I think is pretty awesome.

Carl's brother Ben made me aware of this thread and suggested I write in. I'm a lexicographer with a degree in linguistics; I have a phonetic vowel chart tattooed on my left shoulder blade. It was done in 1993, and it's two-color, and actually looks lame, so I don't have a photo of it anywhere.

This New York Times article -- -- refers to it, but the writer and I agreed that the concept sounded neater than the actuality, so we didn't show a picture of it and decided to let readers' imaginations run wild.

At some point though, I do want to get a new, enhanced one. That I'll take a picture of.

- Steve

I have an Ourobouros twisted into an infinity symbol on my wrist and this weekend I'm getting a simple line design of a shark on the back of my neck (small).

This is the wrist one.

PS. I've a degree in Marine Biology (sharks) but I am currently working in a microbiology lab as a scientist and tech. officer.

The seaweed Dictyota menstrualis with amphipods Ampithoe longimana crawling on it. The subjects of my dissertation, the amphipod feeds on and lives on the seaweed. Feeding by the amphipod induces the seaweed to produce higher concentrations of chemicals that protect the seaweed from grazers. Erik Sotka took the picture, and has worked on the evolution of this seaweed-herbivore pair.

Carl: Love your books. At the Water's Edge is required reading for my marine biology students.

i got a similar one that I designed with my father upon graduating highschool. It spells family and uses symbols instead of colors.

I like the idea of science tattoos... Science concepts have this natural built-in aesthetic to them. Pretty cool...

Zimmers website is pretty nice imo.