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'Shirtstorm' Leads To Apology From European Space Scientist

The European Space Agency's Rosetta mission made history this week by putting a lander on a comet. But at the same time, one of its leading scientists drew wide criticism for wearing a shirt featuring lingerie-clad women – a decision for which he apologized Friday.

"The shirt I wore this week – I made a big mistake, and I offended many people, and I am very sorry about this," British physicist Matt Taylor said during an update on the ESA project Friday. He appeared to become emotional as he spoke, taking a moment to wipe his eyes.

Taylor is the ESA's Rosetta project scientist whose excitable nature and extensive tattoos had the potential to liven up what was an otherwise serious scientific operation. But he set off a stream of negative reaction Wednesday when live coverage of the landing showed Taylor wearing what looked to be a bowling shirt completely covered by images of women in provocative poses.

The researcher changed into a different shirt during the event, but criticism quickly spread, particularly after science writers Ed Yong and Rose Eveleth tweeted about it.

Soon, comments about the shirt centered around the hashtag #shirtstorm. It also brought new attention to the hashtag #WomenInSTEM.

Astrophysicist and writer Katherine J. Mack tweeted, "You think a shirt like this makes women feel welcome? I don't."

Others noted that women play central roles in the Rosetta project, from Valentina Lommatsch of the German Space Agency to NASA's Claudia Alexander, a researcher who is the project manager for the U.S. portion of the project.

And then there was planetary and space sciences professor Monica Grady, a researcher whose infectious excitement about the successful landing could not be contained in an interview with the BBC.

The uproar over Taylor's shirt comes amid a wider conversation about women in science and technology — a conversation that has sometimes sparked crude responses. That was the case this week, as Eveleth, a science and technology writer at The Atlantic, received — and retweeted — derogatory, violent and dismissive comments regarding her tweet.

Noting Taylor's apology today, Eveleth tweeted, "Glad to hear @mggtTaylor recognized his mistake & apologized... we can both move along with our lives."

Taylor has said that a friend, Elly Prizeman, designed the shirt. She confirmed that in a tweet Thursday — and today, she said she was sad to see the effects of the controversy.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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