Stevens F. Johnson's Science Ink

We are what we do. For 40 years, I have been a scientist, mathematician, engineer, teacher, and philosopher. A few years ago, I decided that it was time to celebrate and illustrate the depth of my professional experiences and expertise by designing my own tattoos and wearing them on my own canvas. I needed them to be unique to me so that they would tell my professional story as well as being tastefully artistic. Fred "Outlaw" Whelan (of Body Matrix in Bemidji MN) was instrumental in his suggestions and applying the finishing touches to my original ideas and sketches for making the final designs artistic enough to be worthy of permanent display.

Apparently, Fred and I succeeded in making the tattoos attractive to a great many people. Frequently, during the warm weather months when I am wearing my trademark tank top and shorts attire, I get asked about the tattoos: "Why are they so different from other people's tattoos?" "What do they mean (if anything)?" "Where did you find those designs?" "Why did I do it?" "I thought only bikers and low lifes have tattoos." This page is my response to some of the questions that are often asked, mostly explaining what each tattoo means. Some of the other questions are best answered by going to Carl Zimmer's Science Tattoo Emporium (where my first two tattoos are featured [here]), to the RF Cafe, or to Zimmer's forthcoming book Science Ink (Fall 2011), which will also feature several of my tattoos.

What follows is the story and explanation of my ink:

After years of needling from my musician wife (who has a pair of music tattoos on her shoulders), I finally took up the challenge in January 2009 and began wasting large amounts of time designing my own science, engineering, and mathematics tattoos. I greatly enjoyed the time and effort to get them just right, to reflect who I am and what I do (Professor of Physics and Engineering).

Photon in Flight; Click for high resolution photo.
Photon in Flight
Periodic Table and Planck Snake; Click for high resolution photo.
Periodic Table and Planck Snake

The right shoulder tattoo [above left] is a 3D perspective abstract view of a gaussian photon, a "particle of light." The red vertical undulations represent the electric field, the black horizontal undulations the magnetic field. It is propagating to the right, seen here as a snapshot in time. The photon is the single most common manner in which information is transmitted from one place in the universe to another. Fred Whelan, the tattoo artist, suggested adding the faint shadows to give it depth, but the real reason I agreed to the shadowing was the ironic (oxymoronic?) humor of a particle of light casting a shadow.

The left shoulder tattoo [above right] is a 3D perspective of the Periodic Table with the Planck Snake weaving around it (note the h-bar, Planck’s constant, in the eye). The snake represents the wave nature of matter, and Physics in general. (The infinity symbol the snake forms is a bonus.) The combination of the Periodic Table of Chemistry with the Planck Snake of Physics is also an inside joke at the expense of chemists: It took the Quantum Mechanics of Physics to explain to Chemistry its own Table of Elements.

Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram; Click for high resolution photo.
Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram
Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram Scatter Plot
Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram Scatter Plot

The right upper arm tattoo [above left] is an abstract representation (in a tribal motif) of the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram of Astronomy. The H-R Diagram is a scatter plot [above right] of the surface temperature vs. absolute brightness of all the visible Stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. The design here also suggests the sweeping paths that aging Stars follow as they evolve during their lifetimes. The eight-point star represents our Sun, in the band (called the Main Sequence) that extends diagonally from the upper left corner to the lower right. The regions above and below represent Red Giant and White Dwarf stars, resp. Our sun will pass through the Red Giant stage on its way to becoming a White Dwarf in about five billion years.

Strange Attractor; Click for high resolution photo.
Strange Attractor
Poincare Return Map of a Duffing Oscillator in Chaos
Poincare Return Map of a Duffing Oscillator in Chaos

The left upper arm tattoo [above left] is a Strange Attractor (in yin yang form) of a Duffing Oscillator. Specifically, it is the Poincare Return Map [above right] of the oscillator while in a chaotic dynamic mode. Scientific Chaos is the unpredictable behavior that deterministic systems sometimes display. A Strange Attractor is a set of dynamic states toward which a system in chaos evolves. The Duffing oscillator is a member of a class of periodically forced oscillators with nonlinear elasticity. The Duffing Oscillator equation has been used to model nonlinear mechanical oscillators, stock price variations, and deeply trapped star orbits in a spiral galaxy, among other things. The design was created by plotting several million data points of a simulation by computer.

The following two forearm tattoos were designed as a pair. Together, they represent the only Universal Language that can exist: Mathematics, the Alpha and Omega of languages. Although only a written language, it is absolutely identical here as it is on the other side of the Galaxy. Alien civilizations elsewhere in the Galaxy will agree to its universality. They may use different symbols to scribe it, but the syntax will be identical to ours, by necessity: There is, after all, only one dialect of Mathematics. It will be used to initially communicate every time we make First Contact with a new extrasolar civilization.

Vector Calculus; Click for high resolution photo.
Vector Calculus
Vector Calculus (flattened); Click for high resolution photo.
Vector Calculus (flattened)

The left forearm tattoo [above left] illustrates the two most fundamental theorems of Vector Calculus. Stokes Theorem is read from the Integral Sign on the left, across the top left loop, through the Closed Contour Integral Sign, to the lower right. (It says "The surface integral of the curl of vector function F is equal to the closed contour line integral of F along the perimeter of that surface.") Gauss' Theorem is read from the Integral Sign on the left, across the lower left loop, through the Closed Contour Integral Sign, to the upper right. (It says "The volume integral of the divergence of vector function F is equal to the closed surface integral of F on the surface of that volume.") Together, they form the symbol Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet. Vector Calculus was developed by James Clerk Maxwell for the express purpose of describing and understanding Electromagnetic Fields. A flattened view of the tattoo is above right.

Calculus of Residues; Click for high resolution photo.
Calculus of Residues
Calculus of Residues (flattened); Click for high resolution photo.
Calculus of Residues (flattened)

The right forearm tattoo [above left] illustrates the calculational tool of "last resort" for Physicists and Engineers, the Calculus of Residues Theorem. (It says "The closed contour integral of a complex scalar function F in the complex plane is equal to two pi i (the square root of negative one) times the sum of the residues of the poles of F enclosed by that contour.") The X in the middle is the relevant Pole to which the Theorem alludes whose mathematical Residue is physically important to Physicists and Engineers. The rope represents the relevant contours of integration in the Complex Plane, and form the symbol Omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet. Residue theory is part of Complex Analysis, which involves complex-valued variables and functions, that is, those with real and imaginary parts, and is used in most branches of Physics and Engineering. Fred Whelan, the tattoo artist, specializes in rope tattoos, so it seemed natural to use a rope to represent the contours, to add an artistic quality to the design. A flattened view of the tattoo is above right.

Masonic Field Equations; Click for high resolution photo.
Masonic Field Equations
Vegvisir; Click for high resolution photo.

The right calf tattoo [above left] is a modified Masonic Symbol. I am a Mason, but Science is my guiding philosophy in life. So instead of the single letter "G" that is traditionally in the center, I chose a banner ribbon upon which is written one form of the Einstein Field Equations of General Relativity to lay across the compass and square. (There are 16 interelated equations built into this single tensor Calculus equation.) The "G" in the middle of the equation is the Gravitational Constant. Gravity is the most far reaching of all the physical forces in the Universe, and it fundamentally describes and controls the very fabric of Space-Time in which we all exist. It represents fundamental Order in the Universe and treats everything and everyone in it scrupulously fairly. This level of Fairness and Respect is what I aspire to in my interactions with others.

The left calf tattoo [above right] is Vegvisir, a runic symbol called the Viking Compass or Runic Compass. Translated from Icelandic, it means “see the way,” “guidepost,” or “direction sign.” For the Vikings, it was worn or inscribed on the individual, it’s purpose to guide the wearer safely through storm and fog, to find the way back home. It is not really a Science-themed tattoo, but it is intended to be viewed in conjunction with the Masonic Field Equations tattoo on my right calf. Together, they can be read as describing my "Moral Compass," the ethics of Science and the Masonic Brotherhood.

There is one more tattoo that decorates my canvas; It is personal and not related to Science. Yet another tattoo is in the works and will refer to my love of music. (I've been singing tenor in public since age 10.) It will be on my outer right forearm and will likely appear on this page eventually, since music is a mathematical art, and hence deserves to be represented here.

I am what I do. And now, what I "wear" describes what I professionally do. Will there be more tattoos in my future? Maybe. I am happy with what I have. Perhaps there will be new endeavors that will rival the passion and interest I already have in Science. I might then consider wearing them on my sleeve, too.

I have some advice for those who might consider a tattoo of their own someday. Take your time, lots of time. Be very sure it is what you want, because you'll be stuck with it forever. Design your own, or have one designed specifically for you by a good artist. The tattoo should be special to you personally. Go to a reputable (read, expensive) tattoo artist. It'll be worth the time and money. A good tattoo artist will not ink just any old crap on your skin; He'd rather lose a client than permanently ink a terrible design. The size of the tattoo should be tasteful (small, generally). It's placement should be appropriate. Stay away from tattoos on your head or neck. They can not be covered for those special occassions that may so require it, such as weddings or job interviews.

Last Updated January 23, 2011.
© 2011 Stevens F. Johnson
All rights are reserved unless explicitly stated otherwise.