Tag Archives: tattoos


We’ve been pretty serious for a while, which always makes me a little edgy. And “tattoos” or some version thereof continues to be one of the biggest search terms for this blog. So, to raise the font size of “tattoos” in the tag cloud, I’ve put together a gallery of eye candy.

In their 1994 book, The DNA Mystique, Susan Lindee and Dorothy Nelkin write that “habitual images and familiar metaphors…provide the cultural forms that make ideas communicable.” The double helix is the scientific icon of our age—much like the Bohr atom was during the Cold War. Putting it on your body identifies you with science, with biotechnology, with life. It is also just a stone beautiful image, which works in a line, say down your spine, wrapped around a biceps or ankle, or curving sinuously just about anywhere. The best collection of science-themed tattoos of course is Carl Zimmer’s “Science Tattoo Emporium.” Many of these were borrowed from his archive, so a big hat-tip (tat-hip?) to him. I have the hardcover version Science Ink prominently displayed on my coffee table. Others drawn from elsewhere around the web. Click the picture to open the original url.


A DNA riff on the Darwinian image of the “tree of life.” But it of course also reminds me of the eugenics tree…


Foot tattoos are hard. Here's a cute rendition of unwinding DNA that flows nicely with the anatomy.

Foot tattoos are hard. Here’s a cute rendition of unwinding DNA that flows nicely with the anatomy.

Not the best execution of the image (no major and minor grooves), but a neat black-light effect that reminds me of fluorescent labeling.

Not the best execution of the image (no major and minor grooves), but a neat black-light effect that reminds me of fluorescent labeling.

Just. Wow.

Just. Wow.

All right, I admit I'm wondering whether this represents bacterial DNA (and is therefore circular).

All right, I admit I’m wondering whether this represents bacterial DNA (and is therefore circular).

An interesting “biomechanical” visual effect.

Here artist Jason Stomber has woven the double helix into a full sleeve.

Here artist Jason Stomber has woven the double helix into a full sleeve.

Clever use of the DNA icon by a pair of twin sisters. Of course, when they line them up, they become prokaryotes.

Clever use of the DNA icon by a pair of twin sisters. Of course, when they line them up, they become prokaryotes.



Science of the tattoo-obsessed

Scientists are nerds. They are passionate about something most people can’t care about, dig deeper into it than most people have patience for, and are easily bored by subjects they are not obsessed with. Nerds can be fun, in the way that autoclave spaghetti and midnight races with experimental sea slugs are fun. But what nerds aren’t, therefore, is cool.

Tattoos are cool. It hurts to get one, they evoke sailors and bikers and punks and other naughty people. And damn, man, that thing’s permanent, what are you going to tell your mom, and how the hell do you think you’re going to get a job? The problem with tattoos is that most of them suck. They are done by slacker punk kids with no talent, they are flash designs of butterflies or hearts or anchors or swallows. Employing my favorite technique of rectally deriving my statistics, fully 90% of tattoos are clichés, and 90% of those are badly placed and badly executed. And with them, the wearer usually proclaims, “I’m part of a group!” Historically, most ink signifies membership in some (usually seedy) club.

Brachyhypopomus (originally, Hypopomus) pinnicaudatus, a Venezuelan electric fish

One of the all-time great Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup moments in recent cultural history, therefore, is the advent of science tattoos. Nerdy tattoos. Unique images chosen out of passion for one’s calling, designed lovingly late at night over strong coffee and weak beer, collaboratively modeled to sculpt the body region best suited to it, meticulously needled by artisanal craftsmen charging upward of $200 an hour, and worn proudly as a badge of individuality rather than uniformity. (Tattoo aficionadoes are chagrined, and sometimes furious, when they see “their” image on someone else.) Beautiful, sexy tattoos that you can wake up in the morning, stone sober, and look at in the mirror and be glad you got. And do the same 40 years later.

Me, I have a fish on my back. Brachyhypopomus pinnicaudatus, to be both generic and specific. I discovered it in Venezuela in 1987, during a long and traumatic field season. I wrote the paper describing the new species, I wrote a Master’s thesis on it, and I drew the illustration that accompanied the type specimen. It was a painful experience in many ways. That fish came to symbolize both achievement and failure, as well as my first attempt at synthesizing art and science. I carried that experience for 20 years, until I figured out ways to overcome the guilt, shame, and emotional scarring of those first years in grad school. And so I brought my original drawing to the best tattoo artist I could find, Tom Beasley at Dragon Moon Tattoo, and had him ink it on me. Its electric organ discharge, as visualized on an oscilloscope, plays above it on my neck. This body ornament took about 4 hours and cost $600. While Tom’s needles played over my dorsal tissues, I meditated on that experience. As he worked, I felt the weight lifting. Tom lifted that fish off my back, actually.

That, and my other tattoos, are why I pre-ordered Carl Zimmer’s lavish new book, Science ink: tattoos of the science-obsessed. Though bereft of tattoos himself, Zimmer has remarkable empathy for the inked. He gets why we do this. On his blog he collected stories and photographs of science-related tattoos. Zimmer, who writes for Discover magazine, presents the images along with explanations of the science and symbolism behind them. It’s a trove of science knowledge broken appealingly into Reese’s Pieces-sized chunks, and a big bag of eye candy for ink fetishists. These are tattoos that don’t suck.

Zimmer groups the images by discipline: physics, chemistry, natural history, neuroscience, and so on. The tattoos range from dainty anklets to dramatic full backpieces and sleeves. Zimmer is at his best when he walks us through a large, complicated tattoo with many elements. He describes an “ecological allegory” adorning the hip, side, and back of Maureen Drinkard, who wrote her PhD thesis on the bogs of Ohio. He tells us about the bog ecosystem, then describes the cardinal flower on her ribcage, the skunk cabbage that blooms beneath on her hip, the dragonfly she chose as a reminder to be strong and ferocious, and rat-tailed maggot she considers her future. The “ick” reaction some might have to the unromantic rat-tailed maggot is tempered by the “rainbow sheen” it gives off when plucked from the slimy bog and held in the sunlight. Science tattoos are almost always ultimately about beauty.

They are also about facts, which makes these images a playground for a science writer. “Six hundred million years ago,” Zimmer writes about Anthony Pirulli’s full “evo-devo” sleeve,

“a worm-like creature swimming the Precambrian seas used networks of genes to build its body—networks for determining its head-to-tail anatomy, its front-to-back coordinates, its appendages, its organs. That early worm gave rise to many lineages of new kinds of animals, which are still thriving today. And despite their diversity—from insects to squid to starfish to humans—they still use the same basic gene networks to build their bodies. These networks took on new functions through the evolution of the genetic switches that turned the genes on and off. So in a very deep sense, the heart of a fly is much like our own heart. Ever since, Firulli has been studying the functions of some of those genes.”

That’s nice writing. It captures the current understanding of systems biology and embeds it in its evolutionary context, without relying on technical jargon or the dry scientific passive voice. Zimmer gets the science right and expresses it in language a bar-brawling biker can understand.

The book is richly, even extravagantly produced. Though the pages are matte, the photos are mostly high-quality. The cover is in two colors of cloth and has molecular cut-outs, through which neurons, DNA, and microbes peek out. I’m not crazy about the gothic type on the headers, which, I suppose, is meant to evoke 19thcentury German scientific papers. It seems a bit over the top. The text is carefully edited, although in one case a bird is re-classified as a mammal when the South American motmot is listed as a “marmot.” The index is brief but effective; it thoughtfully includes the illustrated organisms and mathematical variables, as well as the names of the doctoral canvases that bear the imagery. Nerds can look up their friends, whether they be researchers or the researched.

Phi, the golden ratio (1.618…)

I was simultaneously proud and a little dismayed that my other science-related tattoo (so far) merits an entry. Phi, the so-called “golden ratio,” is the first irrational number; a constant that, like the more familiar pi (3.1416…), can be carried out to an infinite number of decimal places and thus must always be approximated, its precision foiled by that tantalizing ellipsis. The golden ratio occurs frequently in nature, from the spiral of the chambered nautilus to the whorls of pine cones, sunflowers, and spiral galaxies. Fortunately, none of the four phi tattoos Zimmer presents are just like mine—or as beautiful, in my view. My tattoo has several layers of meaning for me, because I am a nerd, but one of them is as a reminder that mathematics, often called the language of nature, has limitations.

Sometimes natural truth lies not in the number but in the image. Now that’s cool.


DNA Day and Body Modification

The scientific study of human heredity has and has always had two types of practical application: relief of suffering and human improvement. Research programs with those ends in mind have existed at least since the beginning of the 20th century—maybe earlier, depending on how you define things. But by the Progressive Era (roughly 1890–1920), research in human heredity and genetics explicitly sought to reduce or eliminate human disease, raise the average level of our intelligence, beauty, and longevity, and improve our character.

For a long time, the only way to accomplish those goals was to regulate behavior. At the highest level—i.e., the least invasive of bodies but the most invasive of liberty—you regulate the relationship between people who might have children together. In the Progressive Era, many states passed laws prohibiting marriage between two people who were mentally retarded, or certifiably insane, or had tuberculosis (though its infectious nature was recognized, researchers also understood that there was an inherited predisposition). Immigration restriction laws, too, were a form of regulating behavior in the supposed interest of the national heredity (at least in part). They can’t breed if you don’t let them in in the first place.

Many people at the time saw surgical sterilization as much less invasive than marriage or immigration restriction. Advances in surgical technology and practice shifted the target of modification from the relationship to the individual. Modify the individual body and you can afford to be unconcerned with who that person marries or lives with or next to. From our perspective today, sterilization is an appalling invasion of autonomy, but in the 1930s, the heyday of eugenic sterilization—worldwide, by the way, not just in Germany—many people saw it, like abortion, as a way to loosen restrictions on the behavior of the sick, imperfect, and impure while still working toward improving society.

For a long time, then, “applied” human genetics was synonymous with what we think of as the worst excesses and sins of eugenics. Science historians and historically minded scientists have often written that human genetics got “tangled up” with eugenics because the researchers back then did not have sufficient knowledge. Now that we understand the science better, the argument runs, we can avoid the kinds of simplistic fallacies that drove the eugenics movement—fallacies such as the idea that there is a single gene for “feeblemindedness.” Or, ahem, the love of the sea.

But that argument gets it backward. Eugenicists resorted to marriage laws and sterilization for the same reason that there was so little reliable data on human genetics: genetics required sex. Because human geneticists couldn’t carry out breeding experiments, they couldn’t do backcrosses, self-fertilizations, and all the other kinds of matings that other geneticists could do. They could, though, control who mated with whom to some degree on a broad social scale.

The significance of DNA is that it made it possible to do genetics without sex. It wasn’t just DNA, of course—cell culture as well as lots of advances in biochemistry and microbial genetics also contributed—but by the 1960s DNA had emerged as the emblem of a “new genetics.” From the beginning, the DNA double helix had an iconic aspect. The first published image, in Watson and Crick’s first paper (the anniversary of which is the impetus for DNA Day), had a stripped-down, cartoonish quality, and was described in the figure legend as “purely diagrammatic.” Everyone understands DNA, then, to mean much more than “deoxyribonucleic acid.” It stands for the relationship between heredity and health.

The new, DNA-based, molecular genetics finally made it possible to do genetics without sex. Reducing or preventing disease no longer required controlling who married whom, or (more theoretically) even which babies got born. Technology made it possible to select which genomes made it into the next generation, and even, in principle, to alter and “correct” genes in the individual.

“DNA” thus solved the fundamental ethical problem of eugenics. State-level involuntary coercion of reproductive behavior simply makes no sense in a developed country with sophisticated biomedical facilities. It is pointless and paranoid to fear a “return to eugenics” if what you mean is that good ol’ time Progressive eugenics.

In the DNA era, human genetics is still about relief of suffering and human improvement. The NIH touts the disease side of things, but what counts as a disease is heavily freighted with subjectivity, cultural bias, gender, and racial prejudice. Further, at the molecular level, the difference between preventing disease and genetic enhancement dissolves. If you up-regulate transcription of the gene for Human Growth Factor, for example, it makes no difference technically whether you do it in a dwarf, a short person, or a person of normal stature. And the moral distinction between remediation and enhancement relies on soft, unsatisfying philosophical arguments that basically amount to “Ugh!”—in the same way that a conservative parent reacts when his child comes home with blue hair and a lip piercing.

In 1957, Julian Huxley—grandson of Darwin’s bulldog, a distinguished biologist in his own right, and an articulate, politically liberal eugenicist—coined the term “transhumanism.” He wrote, “The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself —not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity.” This is what he defined as transhumanism, and he intended us to accomplish it by a variety of means, but of course at the root of it would be the conscious, deliberate manipulation of the human germ line. Throughout the 1960s, geneticists fantasized about using the new knowledge of the genetic code to control human development and evolution, to tinker with the design of human beings. The overwhelming majority of this fantasizing was done with the noblest of intentions. Huxley, JBS Haldane, HJ Muller, Joshua Lederberg, Edward Tatum—these were not ignorant fools but rather some of the greatest, most sophisticated minds in biology. They wanted not to rule the world but to reduce suffering and improve happiness, compassion, and noble achievement.

Muller’s eugenic scheme was called “germinal choice.” We’ve all heard of the Nobel sperm bank that William Shockley (inventor of the transistor) wanted to establish—that was Muller’s germinal choice. Present-day transhumanists prefer Muller’s term to “eugenics,” which is irritating because it requires so much explanation about how their eugenics isn’t the same eugenics as the bad old eugenics. But it’s eugenics. The only reason to deny it is the bad publicity the term gives you.

Transhumanists such as Gregory Stock and ScienceBlog’s own Eveloce tend to argue that genetic enhancement is coming whether we drag our feet or not, and they may be right. The sociotechnical power of contemporary biomedicine is astonishing—and on the rise. I’m not yet sure how I feel about this. I am inherently suspicious of any structure with such a concentration of technological and economic power, and power leads to hubris. It is a truism that 21st century DNA science has the potential for enormous benefit as well as catastrophic harm.

The problem is that the largest benefits tend to be long-term, while the largest risks are in the short term. It is not paranoid to be worried about such a situation, nor is it inconsistent to enjoy and admire positive results as they come out while maintaining a healthy, grouchy skepticism about the larger project.

I’m actually encouraged by the fact that transhumanism has a significant overlap with the blue-dreads-and-lip-piercing set. I’m more comfortable with tweaking our genes to, say, be able to grow horns or have Mr. Spock ears than to make everyone tall, white, and smart. Sure, it can be trendy and pretentious, like other body modification subcultures such as the “modern primitives,” but at bottom these folks are interested in it as a form of expression, not social control. Anything that breaks down barriers rather than reinforcing them gets my vote.