Rosetta comet landing scientist ignites a shirtstorm


WASHINGTON, November 14, 2014 – Matt Taylor is a rocket scientist. He’s a PhD physicist and project scientist for the European Space Agency on the Rosetta Project. His team guided a robot space craft on a 10-year, 4 billion mile journey to rendezvous with and land on a comet, a chunk of ice and debris smaller than Manhattan, 310 million miles from Earth.

They succeeded, and that was amazing.

The ESA live-streamed Wednesday’s Philae space craft landing on the comet. It was a moment of triumph for the Rosetta team, for the ESA, and for science and technology geeks all over the planet. But the live-stream wasn’t just watched by space geeks.

No one at ESA would have believed that they were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences stupider than theirs and yet as passionate as they; that as they busied themselves about their cometary landing, they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

With infinite complacency they went to and fro over their mission, serene in their assurance that other people would be as impressed and excited as they. No one gave a thought to the bitter mediocrities who flunked calculus as sources of danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea that they would be watching this event as impossible or improbable.

Yet across the gulf of scientific enthusiasm and achievement and intellect, minds that were to their minds as Lady Gaga is to music, intellects arid and cool and unsympathetic, regarded these ESA scientists with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against them. And soon after Philae landed came the great disillusionment.

People with cramped little minds and withered little souls didn’t see the wonder of the moment. They saw Matt Taylor’s shirt.

Let’s pause to consider the shirt. It was designed for him by his friend, Elly Prizeman. It’s a colorful cacophony of gloriously bad taste, covered with buxom women in leather clothing holding firearms. It looks like the cover of a sci-fi paperback. It appears to match Taylor’s extensive tattoos. Half the men who play World of Warcraft or attend Comic-Con would love to have that shirt.

Why Taylor chose to wear that shirt that day has never been explained. Aside from issues of gender, it was inappropriate and in bad taste. Forced to guess, we might decide that it was his lucky shirt, that he was incredibly excited that his team was making scientific history, and that he never gave a thought to the fact that he would be on TV. We can only be glad that unlike ancient STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) star Archimedes, Taylor didn’t run naked from his bath to revel in the landing.

Taylor’s shirt, now immortalized as the “shirtstorm,” was off-putting to some people. Let’s not be coy; it was off-putting to feminists.

The initial criticism of Taylor’s shirt was not particularly harsh. Science writer Rose Eveleth tweeted, “No no women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt.” Astrophysicist Katherine Mack tweeted, “You think a shirt like this makes women feel welcome? I don’t.” The Guardian published an article by Alice Bell who observed, “ESA can land their robot on a comet. But they still can’t see misogyny under their noses.”

The outrage built. One woman tweeted, “‪#ThatShirt is a problem, because it shows that Taylor thinks women are a punchline. It shows [email protected] doesn’t notice casual misogyny.”

‪#ThatShirt is a problem because of what it says about society. ‘How do I look cool and fun? Oh, I’ll degrade women. That’ll do it.’”

S.E. Smith, a writer for XO Jane, wrote, “How many little girls and young women with an interest in STEM logged onto this broadcast this morning, excited to see a historic moment, only to be greeted with this shirt? How many of them started to rethink their interest, given this and the other thousands of incidents involving sexism in STEM, large and small? This isn’t about a single shirt and what happened when a man wore it, but about a much larger picture.”

Any little girl who will be deterred from a career in science, technology, engineering or math by that shirt probably had no future in any of those disciplines in the first place. It takes perseverance and brains to become a top scientist, not to mention the hide of a rhinoceros, not obsession with victimhood.

The message sent by people like Smith is appalling: Little girls need protection if they’re going to go into STEM fields; they need to be welcomed, unlike women who have established themselves solidly in once male professions like medicine, the military and journalism. The men in STEM fields are harder on female psyches than other men, and the girls who might go into STEM fields, more fragile than their sisters in medicine and in uniform.

Rocket science is still largely a man’s game. The narrative of Taylor’s critics is that this is because women are unwelcome. That explanation for under-representation of women in STEM fields is facile and unlikely to help get more women into those fields. What makes science more “unwelcoming” than medicine or West Point?

Yet many of Taylor’s critics join the Washington Post’s Rachel Feltman when she observes, “Science is not a welcoming place for women, even today, and the only people who can truly make it more welcoming are the men who run the show.”

If we want more women in STEM fields, it will take much more than making them feel welcomed. To treat the lack of women in those fields as a problem of sexism is to embrace failure.

Taylor did what members of his class are expected to do in this kind of situation: He apologized, and he wept. His critics ended up looking like bullies. The episode took some of the joy out of the Rosetta accomplishment, and it robbed Taylor of a celebratory moment.

Feltman argues that Taylor’s critics have themselves been unfairly criticized for their observations about the shirt. She says that “none of the people calling out Taylor’s attire wanted him blacklisted from science, or punished, or to run into a corner and cry.” All that they want is an honest discussion about sexism in science, and recognition by an “amazing scientist” that the shirt was in fact a problem.

Let us take her at her word. It is clear that we’re not prepared for that kind of discussion. The shirtstorm has not produced generous and respectful treatment of an “amazing scientist,” nor encouraged his supporters to lower their defenses. Until the sides in this debate can establish a sense of trust and respect for each other, this is a debate that will go nowhere.


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