science

Beyond the Shirt

After yesterday’s brouhaha, I wanted to take a closer look at the real news, the amazing things that rocketed the shirt, and the man wearing it, into the spotlight.

I’m a student of science, but I’m more a plants and bugs and squishy dirt piles kinda girl. I’ll admit that barren rocks in space don’t light my fire as much. Which isn’t to say that I don’t find pictures like this one absolutely amazing, wow-worthy, and now I want to paint that…

15114103644_d7d2e1cb1c_zHere’s the thing. Because I’m not really tapped into what’s going on out there, up past the atmosphere, I hadn’t heard of Rosetta and Philae before I watched the landing as sketched by Randall Munroe at XKCD. And I certainly didn’t expect that shirt to be the thing that drew all eyes to the mission. However, now that we’re all looking, let’s talk about this, shall we?

Rosetta, the mothership that carried Philae to her new home on the comet, has been up and away for ten years now. How many of you have been waiting a decade to see a life’s work project carried out? During Rosetta’s flight, the team responsible has not been idle. They have been learning. Learning about asteroids, how to fly a ship with no-one onboard, and control signal lags long enough to go have lunch while you wait. During the flight, the ship had close encounters with two asteroids, unprecedented opportunity to study these lumps of… well, now we know. Hydrated minerals.

Lutetia’s Grooves

But all the world heard about yesterday was a shirt. A wacky shirt, yes. One that, as many came here to point out, didn’t fit into the usual business dress of an office. However, they aren’t looking at a few details. First, this scientist is known for his wacky and wild wear, which he dons deliberately with the idea that children now are not interested in guys in dark suits with clunky glasses. An interview with a British newspaper done earlier this year yields this:  “When researchers ask children to draw a scientist they usually receive vaguely Einstein-looking figures, people in lab coats or men with facial hair. From now on, they could start seeing extensive tattoos on those characters as well. Inspiring this new look is Dr Matt Taylor, the man in charge of the science being done by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to land on a comet for the first time and hopefully reveal secrets about how life began on Earth. Much of Taylor’s body is covered in tattoos. Worried about image, the space agency asked him to cover his arms at a large media event this year. Now, the tattoos have become a talking point. He even has one dedicated to the comet mission on his right thigh.”

So this man is known to be eccentric. What happened? What happened is that a female ‘reporter’ decided that she was going to find something to be offended at. I’m not talking about the bubbly and professional Lizzie Gibney, who can be seen talking with Matt Taylor in the above video. No, someone who wasn’t even there, saw the shirt, and suddenly nothing else mattered. Rose Eveleth was looking for a reason to be offended, and she found it.

Forgotten were the actual women involved in the mission, like Marilia Samara, Claudia Alexander, Svetlana Gerasimenko, and Kathrin Altwegg. If you want to encourage girls to go into science, why not feature one of them, or the others whose names are to be found on the lists of team members?

Imagine, a woman born just after the end of WWII, watching the Philae land! “And her reaction, after waiting so many years to see the first close-up images of the comet? “Comets are the most enigmatic and enchanting objects. In the course of my work I observed a lot of them and obtained many interesting pictures. And every shot was unique, because the view of a comet is changing every moment. But those were the pictures of other comets. When I saw the pictures of our comet made by Rosetta, I had a feeling that I was seeing something so special, so near and dear to me,”  was her reply.”

This is what we need to focus on. The sense of wonder, the amazing things that the men and women achieved. You find what you are looking for, and sadly what some were looking for was the negative, the tiny bits of bad to blow out of proportion. It’s not about not wearing the shirt. It’s about forcing an agenda onto the world, seeking out that handle that you can use to shake another person like a ragdoll, and when they ask ‘what did I do wrong?’ you berate them, shame them, and keep looking for another handle to use against them. What was important here is in danger of being lost in that episode of bullying and power-seeking. Let’s not let that win.

Really want to keep a kid’s interest? How about this…

Philae