What do Michelle Thaller’s tattoos mean? JWST scientist explains ink

Bruno Cooke July 13, 2022
What do Michelle Thaller’s tattoos mean? JWST scientist explains ink
Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images


American astronomer and research scientist Dr Michelle Lynn Thaller has been key to explaining the marvels of the James Webb Space Telescope’s first images – but what is the meaning behind the tattoo running along both of her arms?

Born 1969, Thaller earned her PhD in 1998 at the age of 28 or 29.

The telescope, called JWST for short – or simply “Webb” – wowed the world yesterday with its first full-colour composite image of the distant universe. 

But what do we know about her ink, as Thaller takes the stage in explaining what happens behind the scenes at NASA’s newest spyglass?

Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images

What do the tattoos on Dr Michelle Thaller’s arm mean?

In a Facebook group set up by fans of Michelle Thaller “to get [her] her own show”, NASA’s assistant director for science communication once took the time to explain what the tattoo on her arm means.

Her explanation has received 28K “Like”, “Love” and “Care” responses from her followers, plus 31K shares. She posted it on 28 April 2021. She’s popular among amateur science enthusiasts, as is evident by the more than 9,000 people in the group.

Thaller described the ink as “not a huge secret or anything”, but it is obviously something that merits explanation. 

She chose to open up about it because of the number of questions she’d received about the artwork. And, she wrote, “it’s just kind of silly and sad”, but the response her explanation received shows how earnestly people read it.

Photo by Noam Galai/WireImage

So, what is the tattoo of and what does it mean?

Dr Michelle Thaller’s husband died of cancer in the autumn of 2020. When they started dating in the 1990s, she wrote, they both liked the song The One by Elton John.

It became one of their songs. She writes “Our Songs”, with capital letters.

Before they married, Dr Michelle Thaller’s future husband Andrew wrote her a love letter in which he translated the opening verse of The One into Elvish.

He was a big Tolkien fan. Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit author J R R Tolkien constructed many Elvish languages, with Quenya and Sindarin being best known among them. They’re complete, manmade languages; according to freelance journalist David Neary, more people speak Elvish than Irish.

Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Which type of Elvish did Michelle Thaller’s husband use to write her arm tattoo?

Andrew, Michelle Thaller’s late husband, who died of cancer in 2020, translated the first verse of Elton John’s The One into Sindarin – in the Feorean script.

He had a tattoo artist transfer his own calligraphy onto Thaller’s body. It goes “up one arm, across my back, and down the other arm in an unbroken script”, she wrote on Facebook in April last year. 

“Sort of like his arms are still around me.”

Every time Michelle enters the news cycle – whether by lending her expertise to the explanation of JWST images, or by some other means – her tattoo post picks up more likes, shares and comments. View it here.

What Josiah Saw | Official Trailer

What Josiah Saw | Official Trailer

What has she said about the JWST images?

One thing that stands out from what Michelle Lynn – she uses her middle name on Facebook – has written or said about the image the JWST released yesterday, is that it accomplished it “in about five hours”.

Hubble, by contrast, would have taken “weeks”.

She also spent the best part of an hour discussing the images with Samuel Gregsona, aka Bad Boy of Science, yesterday.

During the conversation, she stresses again that all of the images JWST is releasing this week “were done quickly” – which is partly what makes them so remarkable.

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Bruno is a novelist, amateur screenwriter and journalist with interests in digital media, storytelling, film and politics. He’s lived in France, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, but returned to the UK for a degree (and because of the pandemic) in 2020. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Forge Press and The Friday Poem, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com.