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Science and tattoos…

November 10, 2011

With the number of comments I’ve had from work colleagues I thought scientists with significant tattoos were a pretty rare thing. Apparently not! Carl Zimmer has recently published a great looking book about scientists and their tattoos and I hope to get my hands on a copy ASAP. In the meanwhile you can see an array of science inspired tattoos and associated stories on his blog

As a kid my granddad thought I’d one day end up at the helm of a greenpeace ship, my nan thought I’d go in to research and whilst she was right, I still hold dear many of the messages of environmental protection that I grew up with. Studying Environmental Science for my undergraduate degree introduced me to many inspirational scientists from history, whose work was not only incredibly well thought through scientifically but provided incredibly prescient social commentary. Any one in natural science will be familiar with the two men I’m talking about – Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Despite independently arriving at one of the greatest scientific theory of all time, the two men reacted amicably – a rarity in scientific history, even over minor theories.

Whilst Darwin is these days most associated with the theory of evolution, it’s actually Wallace who is the more captivating scientist for me. He travelled through the Malay archipelago where I too found inspiration to further my scientific career. He also wrote a lot about human impact on the natural environment, a concern I share. And there’s someone else in the world who agrees with me – none other than (I think) the greatest living Englishman – Sir David Attenborough. There’s no one in natural science of my age who hasn’t been inspired by this man – he is the greatest scientific communicator of our time. As part of a personal passions series, he produced a great documentary on Wallace and the Birds of Paradise – a clip is here. And it was in the credits of this documentaries that I first came across the image you see below after he’d read the most beautiful passage from Wallaces book on his travels in the Malay Archipelago…

“I thought of the long ages of the past, during which the successive generations of this little creature had run their course — year by year being born, and living and dying amid these dark and gloomy woods, with no intelligent eye to gaze upon their loveliness; to all appearance such a wanton waste of beauty. Such ideas excite a feeling of melancholy. It seems sad that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions, doomed for ages yet to come to hopeless barbarism; while on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach these distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual, and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man. Many of them have no relation to him. The cycle of their existence has gone on independently of his, and is disturbed or broken by every advance in mans intellectual development; their happiness and enjoyments, their loves and hates, their struggles for existence, their vigorous life and early death, would seem to be immediately related to their own well-being and perpetuation alone, limited only by the equal well-being of numberless organisms with which each is more or less intimately connected.”

So touched by these beautiful words, I determined that if I could get a first class degree, I would have a tattoo of this beautiful bird to inspire me forever
– to be the scientist Darwin was – to not flinch in the face of difficult evidence.
– to think like Wallace did – see the beauty in the world and put the science before my ego
– and finally to maybe one day be half the communicator that Sir David is!

I got the first but unfortunately I was not able to find an artist I thought could bring this bird to life….until I moved to Cape Town where I came across Morag Pringle and her work at Skinscape Tattoo

The tattoo ended up double the size it was originally going to be and Morag has planted the idea that it’s not finished yet…but somehow I’m more in love with the reality of the bird than I was with the idea which I’m so pleased about because you always worry that a tattoo isn’t going to live up to your expectations – all the more reason to find a great artist like Morag.

The story doesn’t end here though…no more than a month after I’d had this long dreamt of tattoo inked in to my back, I got a message from a friend saying David Attenborough would be giving a lecture at my University (Cape Town) and he’d be talking about the birds of paradise! I never thought I’d ever see him in person, let alone hear him talk about those birds which had inspired me a number of years ago! But after queueing from 6am, Ben, my mum and Jon and I, had tickets to attend his free lecture!

It was a beautiful lecture and when the offer of questions was raised, I wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass me by. So I told him briefly how I’d been inspired by Wallace words and had dedicated my tattoo around them, told him this was my favourite of the birds and asked which of the many endearing species was his favourite…this was his response! You can see the full Q&A here.

And the UCT report.

A dream come true? Most certainly, this has to have been one of the coolest days of my life! If only I could have met Wallace too 🙂 But what now? Just like my journey in science, I don’t feel my tattoo is finished, but I think it’s going to take along time to come up with anything that means as much to me than this story 🙂


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