Politics & Policy

Can Science Survive a Garish Shirt?

Matt Taylor and the shirt heard ’round the world
Young women interested in science probably won’t be deterred by a comet physicist’s sartorial selection.

When Giovanni da Verrazzano returned from his famous 16th-century voyage exploring North America, the king of France rebuked him for lack of gender inclusivity aboard La Dauphine.

When William Clark and Meriwether Lewis made it to the Pacific Ocean and back, President Thomas Jefferson quizzed them about any microaggressions they might have committed against their Indian interpreter Sacagawea during the arduous trip.

When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and said his memorable line about “one small step for a man,” President Richard Nixon called to register his regret that Armstrong had strongly implied that only men could walk on the moon.

None of this actually happened, of course, but only because all of these epic human achievements occurred before the advent of Twitter and the modern feminist perpetual-outrage machine. Otherwise, Verrazzano would have been browbeaten and forced into ritual apologies long before any of the natives got a chance to eat him.

Matt Taylor lives in a different time. He is the British project scientist for the Rosetta mission, which succeeded last week in landing a module on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, some 300 million miles from Earth. The mission included a journey of 4 billion miles and is a feat that has been compared to landing a fly on a speeding bullet. It is, in short, a thrilling triumph for human ingenuity.

But let’s not get carried away and lose sight of trivialities.

In discussing the mission on camera after the landing, Taylor wore a Hawaiian-style shirt depicting cartoonish, scantily clad, buxom women brandishing firearms. And just like that, Taylor stood for the subjugation of women and their exclusion from the world of science. Taylor was mercilessly condemned on Twitter and the Internet until the next day he apologized in tears for having committed the sartorial equivalent of a thoughtcrime.

Let’s stipulate that Taylor’s shirt — custom-made for him by a female friend who was delighted he wore it — was tasteless. It was more appropriate for a stroll on the Atlantic City boardwalk or for a day at Comic Con than for any professional setting, let alone for highly public interviews about an event generating interest around the world. Taylor could have done worse than make a trip to Brooks Brothers prior to his star turn.

Although he is not exactly the buttoned-up type. Involved in authoring 70 scientific papers — focusing, in the words of the NASA website, “on energetic particle dynamics in near-Earth space and in the interaction of the Sun’s solar wind with the Earth’s magnetic field” — the bearded Taylor has enough tattoos to compete with the average rock star. He added one on his leg earlier this year depicting Rosetta’s module reaching the comet as a sign of his confidence in success. This is not your father’s Mission Control.

It’s one thing to say that Taylor would have been better served wearing a tie, even a clip-on, on his big day; it’s another to accuse him of a dastardly betrayal of women in science. Any young woman interested in science who will be deterred from pursuing her dream because of one garish shirt worn by one scientist who was practically unknown the day before yesterday needs bucking up. Thank heavens Marie Curie wasn’t so delicate, or she never would have won one Nobel Prize, let alone two.

The overreaction to Taylor’s shirt doesn’t just implicitly send the message that women are helplessly vulnerable to the smallest of unintended slights; it makes feminists look witlessly censorious and absurdly humorless, not that they ever seem to care. The atrocity of Taylor’s shirt will be forgotten soon enough, and it will be on to the next thing. In the past few days, we have learned that mankind can chase down a comet speeding through space at 34,000 mph, but resisting the outrage machine, kicked into high gear over a trifle, is completely beyond its powers.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2014 by King Features Syndicate

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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