2014: A shirt oddity


Two notable things happened last Wednesday: 1) For the first time ever, a probe sent by mankind successfully landed on a comet, and 2) somehow a shirt worn by one of the project scientists responsible for the landmark mission, to some extent, overshadowed the accomplishment itself.

In 2009’s Star Trek, Scotty describes the idea of transwarp as “like trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet, whilst wearing a blindfold, riding a horse”. While the Rosetta mission isn’t a sci-fi concept like transwarp, the comparison made by Simon Pegg’s character is an entertaining way to think of how difficult it was to fire a probe and land it on a comet 300 million miles away from Earth where it was fired.

The Rosetta probe, launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) on March 2, 2004, spent ten years getting to comet 67P/Churyumov– Gerasimenko, nearly employing three gravitational assists from Earth and one from Mars along the way. The probe itself is approximately three metres x two meters x two meters in size. When launched, its target was determined to an accuracy within 100 km (for the record, St. Catharines is approximately 96.11 km2). So, while perhaps not so unbelievable as to put in the sci-fi terms of a fictional Scottish engineer, the feat of simply getting the Rosetta to make contact with comet 67P is truly incredible.

However, the probe made contact with the comet back in May of this year. Just last week on November 12, the Philae lander, carried by Rosetta over the past decade, successfully made the first-ever controlled touchdown on a comet nucleus. Philae underwent its scientific mission, characterizing the nucleus, identifying present chemical compounds and studying the comet’s activities, completing its primary goals before shutting off due to its depleted power source.

The ESA’s Director General Jean-Jacques Dorian said, “we are opening a door to the origin of planet Earth and fostering a better understanding of our future. ESA and its Rosetta mission partners have achieved something extraordinary today”.

Chris Plante and Arielle Duhaime-Ross at The Verge called it, “one small step for man, three steps back for humankind”; all because of a shirt.

Project scientist Matt Taylor was one of the main interviewees for the mission’s success on Nov. 12. In live-streamed coverage, he wore short-sleeved, buttoned and collared shirt featuring depictions of scantily-clad women. Picture those graphic-pattern Dragon Ball Z shirts that some kids wore in grade school, but swap out Goku for dominatrixes and you’ll get the idea.

This sparked outrage online, as many found his shirt to be a blatant example of sexism in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Community (STEM). That particular area of work is considered to be stereotypically male-dominated and many Twitter-ers and Tumblr-ers find this shirt to be a glaring indication of the issue. @roseeveleth tweeted a picture of Taylor in the shirt, saying, “No no women are tooooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt”.

However, the idea that women intent on entering the field of science and technology could be scared off by a shirt is, frankly, insulting to the idea of ambitious women in any field.

Yes, the shirt wasn’t work appropriate. Yes, it’s been noted that the wife of Taylor’s friend made it for him as a gift. Yes, Taylor was likely chosen as spokesperson first for his infectious enthusiasm for what he’s a part of, but also because his sleeve tattoos and sartorial choices that set him apart from the stuffy, lab-coat-wearing stereotype that many picture when they think of scientists.

The real dilemma here is that this was seen as an ideal opportunity to highlight the gender issues in the STEM workplace. That some bloggers out there would have the gall to suggest that, despite what Taylor did to help Rosetta reach 67P, his poor choice of wardrobe has an overall negative net effect on mankind is sickening. That he somehow ruined everything his team achieved by wearing a shirt his friend made for him, is ludicrous.

Does celebration of the Rosetta mission mean silencing the efforts for gender equality in the STEM environment? Absolutely not. It’s undeniably important that both little boys and little girls excited by the success of the Rosetta mission should feel comfortable pursuing a role in humankind’s next landmark attempt. Demonizing Taylor for what he put on that morning definitely isn’t the way to do it. Showing the world that what people wear can have a greater affect than their accomplishments won’t inspire anybody — male or female — to pursue achievements like those of the Rosetta mission staff.

For all the relevant information regarding what was truly important about Nov. 12, check out sci.esa. int (though I specifically recommend seeing the Rosetta flight path, shown interactively, at sci.esa.int/where_is_rosetta/).

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