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Consumer Safety


Chemistry Tattoos

by Craig Bettenhausen
June 24, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 25


Credit: Reddit
An inaccurate tattoo of MDMA.
Credit: Reddit

Two months ago, on the social media site Reddit, a user called Dolonotikz posted a picture of his new tattoo, along with a note rebuffing commenters who said he would regret it. The tattoo is a line structure of MDMA, the active ingredient in the club drug Ecstasy.

Ecstasy: The real structure of 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, aka MDMA.
This is the structure of MDMA
Ecstasy: The real structure of 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, aka MDMA.

Except that it isn’t. The structure is wrong, with only two double bonds in what should be the central benzene ring. The photo quickly made its way onto the chemistry section of the site, where the Chemistry Reddit community proceeded to detail and debate the exact route by which the erroneous molecule would break down. Commenters also suggested ways that a skilled tattoo artist could correct the structure.

The Newscripts gang knew our readers could do better with structural accuracy, so we asked them to share their own chemical tattoos on Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook. Here are a few of our favorites.

Credit: Courtesy of Elliot Glotfelty
Mirror twins Elliot and Darryl Glotfelty, who both hold degrees in chemistry, have these matching tattoos of D - and L -glucose, respectively. “My twin brother will be joining the Peace Corps in June, and I will be moving to Thailand in April to volunteer with a nongovernmental organization,” says Elliot. “The longest we have ever been apart is nine days,” he adds, indicating that the tattoos will be a “bond” for the pair while they’re on separate continents.
Credit: Courtesy Photo
A tattoo of Niels Bohr's model of the hydrogen atom seemed to one reader, who asked to remain anonymous, a fitting reward to himself for working his way up from community college to a four-year university. The design is also the symbol for Dr. Manhattan, a character from the "Watchmen" comic book series who, the reader says, "gave up his humanity in pursuit of science." He adds that the tattoo is a reminder "to never give up too much of [himself] for scientific obsession," a frequent temptation in grad school, where he's now working his way toward a Ph.D. in molecular neurodegeneration.
Credit: Todd Hudnall
Todd W. Hudnall, an assistant chemistry professor at Texas State University, San Marcos, was a boron chemist in graduate school. During his studies, he carried out nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy on boron-11, an isotope he'll never have trouble remembering.
Credit: Daniel Dryden
Graduate student Daniel M. Dryden explains the differential thermodynamic equation tattooed on his shoulder thusly: "For anything that has happened on the surface of Earth, from the formation of this ball of rock to the first replication of RNA to me hitting 'save' at the end of this post, the thermodynamic driving force behind it all was a reduction in Gibbs free energy."
Credit: Kelly Volp
Chemistry grad student Kelly Volp published a total synthesis of the marine natural product sorbicillactone A during her third year of graduate school. To celebrate, she got a tattoo of the molecule, which was found to have anti-HIV and antileukemia activity.
Credit: Tom S.
Reader Tom S. combined his loves of chemistry and music in his tattoo. In the foreground is a saxophone, and in the background is an excerpt from famed chemist Joseph Priestley's book "Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air."
Credit: Tori Strong
During grad school, Tori Strong worked on the total synthesis of the psychotropic molecule salvinorin A. Now, he's starting a clothing line called "I H8 Me 2" that combines scientific concepts with fashion. His tattoo shows an overview of his Ph.D. work on salvinorin A bubbling out of the new company's logo, a stylized Erlenmeyer flask.
Credit: Eric Perlman
The decision to get a glucose tattoo was "a symbol of my acceptance of diabetes in a way that was personal and reflective of my interest in science," says Dylan Wolman. "I thought that a tattoo would be a proper representation of diabetes in that both are visible to the outside world and both last forever."
Credit: Kyle Ponce
Reader Kyle Ponce got this stylized expression of the increase in entropy over time (ΔS) as a reminder that he can't stand in the way of change in the universe.

Craig Bettenhausen wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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