Math and Science Tattoo Inspiration with Dr. Tom Crawford

Last updated on August 10th, 2023


My only mathematics tattoo is one of Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism. This was the subject in physics that I understood best before I left the field. Amazingly such concise equations describe whole phenomena including visible light. I had a friend who wore a shirt that will make sense to you now.

The four equations of electro-magnetism

Credit: Stack Exchange

Those beauties are Maxwell’s equations in integral form. The second one down is the Law of Magnetic Flux. It states that “…the net outflow of the magnetic field through a closed surface is zero.” (Wikipedia) The loop around the integral sign represents that it is a closed surface.

The surface integral is my favorite mathematical notation. I knew that it would be my first math and science tattoo. I planned for it to be behind my ear. My artist convinced me to place it on my arm instead. The LGBTQIA+ pride flag was also included as a background. These are both important symbols of who I am.

Here is that tattoo for reference.

Tattoo of the surface integral on the background of the LGBT+ rainbow

The graphic artist who completed my logo told me that the double integral sign looked like my initials. (S.S for Suzza Silver) That is a bonus.

Interview with Dr. Tom Crawford

Many in the math and science communities have tattoos and I love seeing them. One person who does is Dr. Tom Crawford who has appeared in several videos on the Numberphile channel. He also has a channel where he did a series explaining math at different depths by stripping down to his boxers.

Here is his video on Maxwell’s equations.

You will notice in that video that Dr. Crawford has many math and science tattoos. I was lucky enough to score an interview with him to talk about it.

Q & A

How many tattoos do you have?

At this point I’ve lost out of the exact number, but I know that it is definitely over 100!

Of your math and science tattoos, which is your most meaningful?

I would say the Navier-Stokes equations. I had this tattoo done at the end of my PhD, during which I had spent 4 years studying the equations. They had become such a big part of my life and the tattoo symbolizes that. (Navier-Stokes equations on Wikipedia)

Why did you get your tattoos?

I’ve always been a fan of rock music and the fashion around the scene so I think getting tattoos was always on the agenda once I was old/brave enough. The specific reasons behind them are incredibly varied, but they all have some meaning - even if it’s something as small as “I like the TV show”. I prefer to pick designs that have at least a small link to my life/interests, rather than just because I like a particular pattern or design. I think this way I am less likely to regret any of them later in life!

Is there anything special about the artists who made your tattoos?

I’ve been going to the same artist in Cambridge for almost 10 years now. He was just starting out when I had maybe my 5/6th tattoo, and he did such a good job that I keep going back! I think it helps that he is really interested in video games/cartoons and a lot of my designs are based around this. I think if the artist enjoys doing the tattoo then they are likely to do a better job.

Did you design your tattoos?

Usually it’s a joint process between myself and my artist. I send over images I like, or other tattoos that I want to take inspiration from, and then he puts something together for me.

Where did you get the idea for your tattoos?

A whole range of inspirations. The maths ones are equations, shapes, numbers that I’ve studied or just find incredibly beautiful or interesting. The cartoons are from TV shows or video games that have played a big part in my life. And of course there are a few song lyrics from some of my favourite bands!

How do people react when they see your tattoos?

I don’t think people are really surprised by tattoos anymore necessarily, although I do often get comments around how bright and colourful a lot of my designs are. I think the surprise tends to come more when they hear about my job at the university - no one expects an Oxford Professor to be heavily tattooed!

When did you get your first tattoo and why did you get it?

It’s a heart filled half in black, and the other half with a skull design. I’m going to blame my “emo-kid” tendencies…

Do you have plans for more tattoos?

Absolutely. I usually go to see my artist 3 or 4 times per year for half-day sessions. Sometimes these are touching up old designs, but mostly we’re working on new ideas. I certainly have plenty more that I want!

Do your math and science tattoos help you with communicating about science with the public?

I like to think so! I do a talk where I explain the maths behind some of my tattoos which tends to be very popular. I think when people see an equation tattooed on my body, they are intrigued to know what is so interesting about it that drove me to get it permanently inked on my skin. And that curiosity helps to hold their attention during the talk and hopefully learn something new in the process.

Future Series?

I loved these answers from Dr. Crawford. Tattoos are super personal and they say so much about who we are. I have no regrets about my own and want at least two more.

  1. e^x because it is my favorite function. The integral and derivative of e^x are both e^x. I see this as representing the idea of being true to oneself. (e on Numberphile)
  2. I also want a tattoo that says “curiouser and curiouser.” This is a line that Alice says in Alice in Wonderland. This represents my love of the book and my curiosity. The story is by a mathematician also at Oxford! I would consider this another math inspired tattoo.

I am open to continuing this as a series on tattoos in STEM. People that I would like to include in the future are Ayliean (also a presenter on Numberphile) and Jaida Elcock (known as @soFISHtication on Twitter). Do you have a math or science inspired tattoo? Send me an email and I may feature you.

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