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Rosetta scientist causes uproar for shirt
01:23 - Source: ESA

Story highlights

Scientist Matt Taylor's shirt featuring sexy images of women caused a backlash

Taylor's shirt upstaged some headlines about landing of space probe Philae

Some said his shirt represented a working atmosphere dismissive of women

Supporters of Taylor: It was simply a shirt and should not overshadow comet landing

CNN  — 

Supporters are coming to the defense of Matt Taylor, the scientist who helped land a space probe on a comet last week and simultaneously sparked cries of sexism with his choice of clothing.

During the live stream of the Philae probe landing, Taylor wore a shirt featuring comic-book-style images of scantily clad women carrying guns. The shirt led some to denounce an atmosphere unwelcoming to women in the science fields and even inspired the Twitter hashtag #shirtstorm.

Taylor, a project scientist for the European Space Agency, apologized Friday during a progress report on the Rosetta Project.

“The shirt I wore this week, I made a big mistake, and I’ve offended many people, and I am very sorry about this,” an emotional Taylor said, wiping his eyes.

We can land on a comet, but we can’t …

Taylor shouldn’t be the one apologizing, according to London Mayor Boris Johnson.

In his Telegraph column, Johnson wrote that the “unrelenting tweetstorm” in response to Taylor’s shirt, coupled with the scientist’s emotional response to it, was a cruel act of public shaming.

“It was like something from the show trials of Stalin, or from the sobbing testimony of the enemies of Kim Il-sung, before they were taken away and shot,” Johnson wrote. “It was like a scene from Mao’s cultural revolution when weeping intellectuals were forced to confess their crimes against the people.”

The public should have been praising Taylor’s accomplishments with the Rosetta Project, Johnson said. Johnson isn’t the only one coming to Taylor’s defense, with some concluding that complaints about Taylor’s shirt overshadowed a momentous occasion.

In a Time op-ed, Cathy Young highlighted that several women worked alongside Taylor to get the Rosetta Project off the ground, an accomplishment for women that didn’t get nearly the attention that Taylor’s shirt garnered.

“Thanks for ruining a cool feminist moment for us, bullies,” Young concluded.

A Daily Caller headline labeled the backlash “Casual Marxism.

Some in the science field sought to go beyond the “tweetstorm” to explain why #shirtstorm was not just about Taylor’s sartorial choice but highlights the larger issue of dismissive attitudes toward women in STEM, or the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Astronomer Phil Plait explained in Slate that while he doesn’t want to tar Taylor with the “misogynist” label, the shirt is emblematic of the STEM boys’ club, especially when paired with Taylor’s casual comment about setbacks his team has faced during the Rosetta Project: “She’s sexy, but I never said she was easy.”

“If you think this is just women complaining, you’re wrong. Certainly many have, and rightly so. But the fact is, I’m writing about it. I can point you to many men, friends of mine, scientists and science communicators all, who have spoken up about it. It’s important that men speak up, and it’s important that we listen, too.”

The backlash against those who complained about Taylor’s shirt is telling, college professor Janet D. Stemwedel wrote in Scientific American:

“This response conveys that women are welcome in science, or science journalism, or the audience for landing a spacecraft on a comet, only as long as they shut up about any of the barriers they might encounter, while men in science should never, ever be made uncomfortable about choices they’ve made that might contribute (even unintentionally) to throwing up such barriers,” Stemwedel wrote.

The woman who sewed the controversial shirt as a birthday present for Taylor has written a blog post reiterating her support of the scientist, whom she calls “close and very loved friend.”

“I am so proud of Matt and his achievements and the fact he is an interesting and very brave person to do what he did with the very sweet gesture he made towards my gift and to wear his individuality with pride,” wrote Elly Prizeman.

Though the shirt may have been a bad choice for the workplace, images of the heavily tattooed Taylor wearing it showed that modern scientists aren’t all sporting pocket protectors and taped-together eyeglasses, some said.

“There must be room in our world for eccentricity, even if it offends the prudes, and room for the vague other-worldliness that often goes with genius,” Johnson wrote in the Telegraph. “Dr Taylor deserves the applause of our country, and those who bash him should hang their own heads and apologise.”