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Beneath the Lab Coat – Why do Scientists get Inked?

Beneath the Lab Coat - Why do Scientists get Inked?

In 2007, award winning science writer Carl Zimmer asked a seemingly marginal question on his blog – how common is it for scientists to tattoo themselves with images of their science?

Over the next few weeks, hundreds of scientists sent in pictures of their science inspired tattoos. In fact, so many images were submitted that Carl Zimmer eventually compiled them into a book, Science Ink, which explores the unique meaning and significance behind science tattoos.

The subject matter of the submitted tattoos was varied, encompassing physics equations, neural circuits, DNA sequences, Darwin’s finches, geological layers, and even squid. Some of the tattoos were general, medical images, such as the anatomy of the heart and others were personalized images, such as DNA sequences spelling out messages within their amino acid sequences.

Similarly, the size and prominence of tattoos differed wildly between individuals; some scientists sported a ‘sleeve’ covering a full arm, others revealed DNA sequences winding up their legs or across the breadth of their back, and still other scientists sent in images of small, discrete tattoos easily hidden beneath clothing.

However, regardless of the variance in tattoo subject matter and size, there was one aspect that appeared again and again in scientists’ discussions of their tattoos – awe of science and the love of studying it.

The prevalence of tattoos in the scientific community initially strikes many as unexpected – the stereotypes associated with scientists don’t seem to fit those associated with tattoos. However, upon closer examination (and the discarding of social stereotypes), it becomes easy to understand why tattoos are so popular among scientists.

Scientists are passionate about their work; they are passionate about understanding the workings of the world around them and then sharing it with others. This passion is notable not for its intensity, for many careers attract passionate, idealistic individuals, but for its stamina. What is amazing is that this passion persists through the trials of research, underlying a unique manifestation of staunchness (or maybe just stubbornness). Scientists knowingly enter fields full of unknowns, knowingly enter minefields of uncertainty, and then dedicate their lives to trying to unravel one aspect of that uncertainty. To say being a scientist takes perseverance is an understatement; being a scientist requires a special kind of masochism – the kind that embraces continually banging your head on the wall for the privilege of being allowed to learn, the privilege of creating, and most importantly, the privilege of being able to discover and advance knowledge. As such, it is not surprising that many researchers care passionately about what they study.

Science is not a 9-5 job, you don’t go home in the evening, prop up your feet and forget about your experiments. Rather, it is an all-encompassing lifestyle, a lifestyle in which you schedule doctor appointments around rodent gestation periods, arrange daycare around viability assays, and can have your mood completely determined by an experiment’s success.  Therefore, the subject matter you study can become deeply personal, and indeed, more so the longer you study it.   It should not be unexpected then for large numbers of scientists to physically imprint themselves with a symbol of this passion.

The decision to tattoo a science image onto your body can be a literal manifestation of willingly incorporating, essentially tattooing, science into every other aspect of your life.

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