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Science Ink:
Tattoos of the
Science Obsessed

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Science Ink

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Astrarium, p.71Astrarium, p.71
"Although I'm not a scientist by trade," writes Lauren Caldwell, "my work on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British literature has provided ample opportunity for me to become acquainted with the work of some brilliant scientific innovators. Though we have discarded some of their ideas, their work retains all of its vital visual force. "Years ago I discovered and fell in love with the comprehensive diagrams in Giovanni de'Dondi's 1364 Il Tractatus Astarii, which contained the plans for the first famous astrarium. Each piece has its own delicate mechanical beauty, but I chose for my backpiece the Mercury wheelwork. Of course, you couldn't track Mercury with it—de'Dondi followed Ptolemy—but his astrarium remains a lovely and impressive testament to human ingenuity and curiosity. "The more spare geometrical diagrams that surround the de'Dondi piece are taken from Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica—of which little enough, I imagine, need be said. Though in many respects these two men couldn't have been more different, they shared a vision of a universe as elegant and aesthetically compelling today as it was when they lived and worked."

DNA monster, bottom p.102DNA monster, bottom p.102
Jay Phelan, a biologist at UCLA, got his DNA tattoo in 1990 while he was in graduate school. "As I got deeper into the study of evolution, genetics, and human behavior," he writes, "I realized that there was a tension between what my genes 'wanted' me to do and what I wanted to do, from the fattiness of the foods I ate, to the selfishness/selflessness I showed to others, to issues with managing my money, my risk-taking, and my relationships, and more. It dawned on me that I was fighting a never-ending battle. Anyway, I tried to come up with a design that captured that tension and, once I did, decided to get it tattooed on my back."

Fulvic acid, 59Fulvic acid, p.59
"I got this tattoo as an homage to the pain of my graduate work," writes Corey Ptak. "It's a model of fulvic acid, which is a representation of natural organic matter in the soil. I work with this molecule for my grad work, and I figured I might as well get it etched into my skin so I can look at it and say, 'Well, at least it hurt less than grad school at Cornell.'"

Tree of life p.142Tree of life p.142
"I have been fascinated by the biological world for as long I can remember," writes Clare D'Alberto, a graduate student in zoology at Melbourne University, "so when I decided to get a tattoo it seemed logical that I look within my field for inspiration. It took 4 ½ hours, and certainly didn't tickle, but I love that I have such a beautiful representation of evolution and the natural world with me all the time." The tree of life has changed shape over the years. In nineteenth-century versions, its branches reached upward through time. Today, scientists use DNA to draw the branches of thousands of species at a time. To make space for them all, they must stretch the tree out into a wheel. D'Alberto modeled her tree after a 3,000-species tree created by David Hillis at the University of Texas. She did not have all 3,000 species tattooed on her, obviously, but this simplified version captures the overall shape of the tree. The creatures around the tree represent the five kingdoms—Monera (bacteria), Protista (amoebae and other single-celled organisms), Plantae (plants), Fungi (illustrated here by yeast and the penicillin mold), and animals (a comb jelly, a mollusk, a starfish, and a seadragon fish). Of course, even 3,000 species is only a tiny fraction of the full diversity of life—1.8 million known species, and perhaps 10 or 20 million more to be discovered. If the current trends of discovery hold up, most of that diversity will be made up of bacteria. So future tattoos will need more microbes and fewer seadragons.

Pioneer plaque, top p.238Pioneer plaque, top p.238
In the early nineteenth century astronomers and other scholars began to think seriously about communicating with aliens. At the time, many of them were convinced that aliens were close by, living on the Moon. To send a message to the lunarians, some proposed digging trenches across the Sahara, filling them with kerosene, and lighting them ablaze. The great mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss favored clearing vast tracts of Siberian forests to create a gargantuan piece of geometry—a textbook figure of the Pythagorean theorem, perhaps. By the end of the nineteenth century, lunarians had evaporated into myth, but in 1920, Robert Goddard, the inventor of the rocket, was still arguing for humanity to compose messages for aliens. Instead of the Moon, however, he turned his attention to Mars. He urged that spacecraft should be sent to Mars, engraved with figures that Martians might recognize. In 1973, the dream of Gauss and Goddard became real. The Pioneer 10 probe (p. 239) was launched into space bearing a message for aliens. A gold plaque depicted a naked man and a woman, along with a celestial map (p. 238, top). The map shows the location of Earth relative to nearby pulsars, which are rapidly rotating stars that unleash regular pulses of radiation "The intervals are very much like fingerprints and are distinct from pulsar to pulsar," explains Alaina Hunt, an artist and amateur astronomer (p. 238, bottom). "On the map, each pulsar's period is encoded in binary code. To decipher the period in megahertz, one needs to figure out the binary number then multiply it by 1420 MHz to get the period of each of the pulsars. With the knowledge of relative distance and the pulsars' periods, one can triangulate the position of our sun." Pioneer 11, launched the following year, bore the same plaque. Both space probes have left the solar system and are now hurtling into deep space. Once NASA had finished with the Pioneer probes, they designed a new generation of spacecraft, called Voyager (opposite, bottom). Launched in 1977, it carried a new plaque. It included not only engravings, but was also etched with a phonographic recording of music, natural sounds, and digitally encoded images (opposite, top). I like to think of these engravings as the ultimate science tattoos. It would be presumptuous to think that aliens will ever see them, though. Voyager has followed Pioneer out of our solar system, where the probes will be spending thousands of years far from another star. We can only hope that an alien civilization will be able to detect tiny spacecraft far from their own planets, adrift in a great void. Even if aliens did scoop up one of our probes, we cannot assume they'd be able to figure out the meaning of their tattoos. It can be hard enough to figure out a science tattoo here on Earth without some help from its owner. What we do know is that these plaques will escape the fate of every human creation here on Earth. While the pyramids of Egypt and the Empire State Building crumble under the relentless force of wind and rain and rust, the Pioneer and Voyager plaques will last for hundreds of millions of years. They may well become the final traces of our species. They are not a gesture to aliens, then, but to the unimaginable future.

Squid p.174Squid p.174
Rebecca Mensch studied squid anatomy in graduate school at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, and got a tattoo so that she'd always remember what goes where. It is easy to get such things confused inside a squid. They have three hearts. Their brain is shaped like a donut, and their esophagus passes through the donut hole. Their eyes contains lenses that glide forward and back, like a telescope, rather than the shape-changing lenses in our own eyes. Squid can swim by sucking in water and shooting it back out through vents around their head, looking back at where they've been. To attack, they flutter fins to move forward and lash out with their eight tentacles. They draw their prey to their mouth, where they slash it apart with a parrot-like beak. A squid beak is one of the stiffest materials in nature, and yet squid can control it with their boneless bodies.