Researchers with tattoos that explain their science
Greg von Nessi’s hair is short, spiked, and bright blue. His arms and legs are tattooed with cryptic markings. In his teens, he struggled with teachers, and set fire to his high school chemistry lab – before finally moving half-way around the world to pursue a personal passion.
He might sound like the lead singer in a punk band, but this American-born mathematician’s research is helping ANU develop the clean energy sources of the future.
Greg’s work – and his unusual scientific tattoos – appear in a new book by the American writer Carl Zimmer.
After Zimmer discovered a respected Harvard neurobiologist with a tattoo of the DNA helix, he put out the call for more tattooed scholars to contact him online. The resulting flood of images led to the publication of Science Ink, a compilation of the body art worn by researchers like Greg around the world.
Greg is an expert in applied mathematics. His four tattoos – one on each of his arms and legs – represent partial differential equations. “These equations describe how things change relative to one another. It’s mathematics that can be used to describe anything from a society’s population to complex biological systems,” he says.
Over in Melbourne, zoology postgraduate Clare D’Alberto has just one tattoo – but it encompasses all life on Earth. Clare’s back bears an illustration of the five biological kingdoms – bacteria, plants, protists (single-celled organisms), animals and fungi.
The “tree of life” is a technical diagram which was originally used by Charles Darwin to set out the evolutionary relations of life on earth.
Clare explains, “I had been looking into Darwin’s drawings when I came across the first tree that he ever drew. Although it’s a very simple line drawing, I thought it was absolutely beautiful.”
Simplifying a modern tree of life which covers over 3000 species, Clare devised an image that she calls “an expression of evolution and the inter-relatedness of all life.”
Spiders are Clare’s interest right now: her doctoral research investigates biodiversity among the varieties of spider that thrive in Australian vineyards
These spiders use a range of strategies to catch their prey. By studying the molecules of food in individual spiders’ guts, Clare hopes to learn how the surrounding vegetation affects their role as predators. If farmers can use plant life to manage the spiders’ behaviour and encourage their natural enemies, it will reduce the need for chemical pesticides.
Far from the vineyards where Clare’s work may benefit Australia’s wine industry, Greg von Nessi is working to develop clean energy at the ANU Plasma Research Laboratory.
He analyses data from fusion devices like the Tokamak container, which uses magnetism to contain extremely hot plasma.
Greg explains: “My job is to peer into gas that we’ve heated as high as 15 million degrees Celsius. The gas gets so hot that the electrons and nuclei making it up disassociate fully. This creates a state known as plasma. By dumping energy onto sufficiently dense plasma, and getting it hot enough for long enough, we should see nuclear fusion occur.”
If the disassociated nuclei in the plasma can be made to fuse, their combined mass will be less than that of the original components. The difference in mass is released as energy, forming what could be a “clean” and pollutant-free power source of the future.
Tokamak machines can have as many as 100 sensors recording the unusual phenomena that result from these conditions.
“The plasma can’t safely touch any solid objects, so the Tokamak container holds it in donut-shaped magnetic fields.” Greg says, “My job is like trying to keep track of a rapidly moving fluid, but with all the added complexities of electromagnetic phenomena.”
At school Greg’s only ally was a supportive – Greg says “insane” – chemistry teacher who allowed him to experiment freely, leading to a laboratory fire. In spite of this Greg managed to graduate early and go straight to university, where tutors helped him realise his passion for applied mathematics.
While in California he read an Australian maths textbook and was inspired to apply for an ANU scholarship. He soon found himself happily transplanted to Canberra, where he and his wife have become proud Australian citizens.
“Aussie researchers are of fantastic calibre – and they have a great sense of humour too. I dyed my hair blue in California, but no-one at ANU ever objects – and my supervisor makes me show off my maths tattoos when we get visitors,” he says.
As Carl Zimmer told an audience at the New York Academy of Sciences earlier this year, “Scientists have this reputation for being dry and passionless, but there’s nothing further from the truth. Tattoos are an expression of the passion that drives you to get a Ph.D.”
Clare D’Alberto’s devotion to zoology made her decorate her body with an image expressing the evolutionary links between all living organisms.
Greg von Nessi’s tattoos consist of letters and numbers – but they, too, express the hidden beauty of his scientific field.
“Equations are like stories,” he says. “You can spend your whole life trying to understand their details. These stories were so important to me, I chose to get them as tattoos.”
Article by Matt Finch
Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed by Carl Zimmer is published by Sterling.