On the Strange Prevalence of Geek Tatoos
One of the most interesting ways to get into the minds of scientists is to look at their tattoos.
Carl Zimmer is a science writer, lecturer, and frequent guest on such radio programs as Fresh Air and This American Life. His books include "Soul Made Flesh," "Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea," and "Parasite Rex." In addition to writing books, Zimmer contributes articles to The New York Times, as well as magazines including National Geographic, Time, Scientific American, Science, and Popular Science. He also writes an award-winning blog, The Loom. From 1994 to 1998 Zimmer was a senior editor at Discover, where he remains a contributing editor and writes a monthly column about the brain.
Zimmer is a lecturer at Yale University, where he teaches writing about science and the environment. He is also the first Visiting Scholar at the Science, Health, and Environment Reporting Program at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.
Zimmer is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.
I was very surprised to discover that a fair number of scientists have some very interesting tattoos and the way I discovered this was that a friend of mine who is a geneticist was at a pool party with his kids and he was in the pool and I noticed on his shoulder there was this DNA tattoo and I said that’s cool and he said, “Yeah, well you know what is really cool is that I’ve spelled my wife’s initials in the genetic code.”
And I thought "Well yes, that is true geek love," but it got me thinking. I’ve seen a couple of other scientists with tattoos and I just wonder if other scientists have it. So the nice thing about having a blog is that you can just ask questions out loud, even kind of silly questions like "Do people have tattoos?" and I was particularly interested in scientists who love what they study so much that they actually engrave themselves with it and I have lost count of how many tattoos I have been sent, maybe like 300 or something like that and a lot of times they really tell amazing stories.
So for example, there is a neurologist who sent me a tattoo she has of a special kind of neuron. It’s a neuron that is vulnerable in Lou Gehrig’s disease, which her father suffered from and actually her father suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease was what made her a neurologist and so this is not just some random tattoo. This is actually speaking to this deep passion that drives her science.
And I like showing these on my blog because I want people to understand that scientists are very passionate people. I mean after all if you think about it I mean they dedicate their lives to studying things like neurons or tapeworms or chemicals and they are very often not getting very much money for it at all, so it’s interesting to get into their minds and one of the ways to get into their mind is to look at their tattoos.
Now I myself have never had a tattoo nor do I ever plan on getting one. If I was going to get one I might imitate one of the tattoos that someone sent in. So Charles Darwin when he was first coming up with his theory of evolution had these notebooks where he would sketch out ideas of his and one day he sketched out a tree and basically this was a way of him saying you know I think that life branches like a tree, I think that species are related to each other by common descent the same way that branches sprout off of a tree and on this notebook page he wrote this tree and above it he wrote, “I think.” He was still working it out and actually there is an evolutionary biologist who has this tattooed on her side and it’s pretty cool. Still I have not yet reached the threshold where I would ink myself.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
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