A Sketch of Science [Science Tattoo]

By Carl Zimmer | July 2, 2010 11:58 am

Caitlin tattoo treeCaitlin, a graduate student, writes:

About four years ago, a close friend from college got her first tattoo – something meaningful and marking a particular point in her life – and she asked me if I would ever get one. I said sure, but that at that point in my life there was nothing I could come up with that was meaningful enough to have permanently etched in my skin. That was my first year of graduate school and I was still very unsure of myself and my future.

Four years of graduate school later finds me in the final stages of earning a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology – a place I was not convinced I was cut out to reach at the start of graduate school. After 2009’s year of Darwin celebrations, including my own involvement organizing a conference celebrating 150 years of evolutionary biology, the perfect tattoo came to me in class one day in March, and I found myself at the tattoo parlor by the end of that week.

My tattoo is Darwin’s very first phylogeny, from his Notebook B on Transmutation of Species and it is on my right shoulder. These notebooks contained much of his brainstorming on evolution after returning from the Beagle, and I was able to see this one in person at the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin exhibit in 2006. I also added his signature and the date which can be found on the inside cover of the notebook.

I chose this particular piece of Darwinia for several reasons. As a perpetual student of science and of nature in particular, I love the slight hesitation and perhaps excitement in the “I think.” I am amazed that Darwin was thinking about phylogenies in 1837, 22 years before the Origin was published – that you can see the seed of his great work (and the preface to the only figure in the Origin) so early in his writings. The phylogeny itself as an image is meaningful because I study speciation, and spend a great deal of time studying, thinking about, and building my own phylogenies. I had also selected it to be part of the cover of the program for the conference I was involved in, and many attendees asked me about it.  In short – it carries a lot of meaning to me.

So, my tattoo honors Darwin, the father of my field; it represents my own personal research; and it exemplifies the slight hesitation and excitement of scientific discovery that I hope will stay with me always as I launch my academic career. It is a mark of confidence, in myself, and my chosen profession. I have no doubt that I will never regret permanently etching this image on my skin, and I know that it will serve as a reminder to me that even though the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a long, sometimes daunting journey, I love what I do and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Click here to go to the full Science Tattoo Emporium.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Tattoo Emporium

Comments (12)

  1. If I ever get a tattoo (unlikely), that will probably be the one I’ll get. I love the simplicity of Darwin’s sketch, how it encompasses such a big idea in such a simple way… And his “I think” is the kicker – expressing uncertainty about his hypothesis, being humble, the scientific process laid bare and raw.

    So iconic. So beautiful.

  2. Steviepinhead

    I have a feeling we’ll be hearing a lot more from Caitlin: what a well-reasoned and articulate explanation for bearing a cool tatt!

  3. It is only to be a tattoo like you and that you mean something

  4. Brittany

    I’m a BioAnthro major with the same tattoo. So nice to know to their are other Darwinists out there that find the same meaning in such a simple image.

  5. I like my skin the way it is, but put a simplified version on a cake.

  6. Nathan

    Hey I got my first tattoo that represents my research, can I post a pic and description on this site like the others? If so how do I?

    CZ: Here’s how: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2010/01/18/science-tattoo-emporium-how-to-get-in/

  7. John Kwok

    @ Caitlin –

    Your tatto represents – according to American Museum of Natural History invertebrate paleobiologist Niles Eldredge (the curator of the Darwin exhibition BTW) – Darwin’s “Eureka moment”, and one as memorable as the instant when Einstein derived his E=MC2 equation. It summarized all that Darwin had observed and collected, in both Patagonia and the Galapagos (though the full realization of what he had done in the Galapagos wouldn’t hit home until he returned to England at the close of HMS Beagle’s circum-global surveying expedition).

  8. jeremy


    I just discovered this blog, but your tattoo and explanation are amazing. I have spent years looking at tattoos but only until recently have I found some ideas worth exploring.

    Was “I think” right next to Darwin’s original drawing or did you decide to place it there?

    Thank you for sharing your tattoo and explaining it so eloquently.

  9. Douglas Butcher

    I’ve had this same tat in mind for about six months, I finally got it today!


  10. briana

    I have this same tattoo. :) Neat to see others with it.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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