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Controversy Over Scientist's Shirt Mars Celebration Of Comet Landing


Some women became targets of nasty online comments just this week because they dared to complain about a shirt - a shirt worn by a scientist with the Rosetta Mission, which just landed a small probe on a comet. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more on a controversy that's been called the shirt storm.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Matt Taylor is the project scientist for the European Space Agency. He's a young guy with tattoos and a beard who looks like he could be in a heavy metal band. You can go online and watch a video of a tattoo artist with a mohawk inking an image of the Rosetta spacecraft onto Taylor's thigh. Before the lander made its triumphant touchdown on the comet, Taylor spoke about the Rosetta mission on the space agency's live webcast.


MATT TAYLOR: I've said it before - Rosetta is the sexiest mission that's ever been. She is sexy, but I never said she was easy.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: As he said this, Katie Mack was watching. She's a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Melbourne in Australia. She noticed that Taylor was wearing a brightly colored shirt.

KATIE MACK: And I looked closer and noticed that it was covered in, like, women in lingerie - like, cartoon women in lingerie. And that was the design of the shirt.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The buxom babes were provocatively posed and shooting laser guns. They looked like illustrations from sci-fi pulp fiction. Mack thought that Taylor's comments and his shirt were just not appropriate for a worldwide broadcast of a major science event.

MACK: To me, it seemed like it was really unwelcoming to women in science to have the lead scientist be wearing women as decoration.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says, OK, it's just a shirt. But little things like this add up to a real problem for science.

MACK: It's not a big deal, but it's part of a big deal.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She made some Twitter comments, as did many others. Then came the backlash - people telling the women to kill themselves or making vile sexual remarks.

MACK: You know, just tweeting profanities at me - just earlier tonight I got an e-mail with the subject heading, you make me sick.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Today, on a webcast about the comet mission, Matt Taylor wore a plain black sweatshirt. He looked stricken. When a moderator asked him about the data coming back from the comet probe, he didn't answer right away. Instead, he talked about the shirt.


TAYLOR: I - the shirt I wore this week - I made a big mistake, and I offended many people. And I am very sorry about this.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: As he struggled to compose himself, a colleague patted his shoulder. After a moment, Taylor began to talk about the science. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.