Thursday, November 13, 2014

She Blinded Me with Science: Special Print-Only Edition

This is a print-only, special edition of She Blinded Me with Science (usually these posts are supplemental to my science segment on local radio show, The Week in Geek). Enjoy!

An amazing thing happened yesterday. Scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) landed a probe on a comet for the first time ever in the history of humans.

First image from Philae of the surface of Comet 67P/C-G
After hitching a 10 year ride to reach Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on the Rosetta satellite, and a 7 hour descent to the surface, Philae bounced twice (due to the comet's weak gravitational pull), but was able to use it's thrusters to force itself back down to the surface. Despite some issues firing the harpoons intended to anchor the probe to the surface of the comet as it spins through space, Philae is currently nestled near a cliff on the comet's surface, about a kilometer from its target landing spot. Though it is currently stable on the surface, Philae is still not properly anchored. Due to its final landing location, there are some concerns about the ability for Philae's solar panels to gather enough sunlight to properly power the probe.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
It wasn't a perfect landing, but it was a success nonetheless. Very rarely do complicated maneuvers like these go perfectly their first go-round, and this mission was nearly impossible to properly train for. Comet 67P/C-G is oddly shaped, a fact no one knew until July 2014, which gave project scientists an incredibly short window to calculate an appropriate landing site in a Goldilocks scenario (not too cold, not too hot, close to a scientifically active area to gather good data, but not so close as to risk damage, good timing to ensure enough surface sunlight will be available throughout the mission, etc.). Additionally, despite an imperfect landing and potential stability and power issues, the mission has been providing scientists with valuable data throughout Rosetta's 10 year flight to reach Comet 67P/C-G, and Philae has been successfully transmitting valuable and historic data images since its landing. This is an amazing thing that has occurred during our lifetime, and I feel privileged to bear witness to scientific feats such as this.

Monika Jones and Dr. Matt Taylor. Photograph: European Space Agency/PA
It is unfortunate, however, that in 2014, during a time of great scientific achievement, we are still struggling with issues of social privilege and misogyny. British scientist Dr. Matt Taylor is the ESA Project Scientist on the Rosetta Mission, and has been a recognizable and much talked about personality for the project. Much like Curiosity Rover engineer, Bobak Ferdowsi, Taylor has been lauded by the media for not being the stereotypical stuffed-shirt, lab coat wearing, old man scientist spokesperson. Unlike Ferdowsi, Taylor was not thrust into the limelight by the media. He has been at the forefront of the mission for awhile; giving news briefs and speaking publicly about the mission was an established aspect of his role in the project prior to the landing. Nevertheless, he chose to don a shirt covered in half-naked women on the day that he knew the world would be watching. Achievements like the Philae Landing are a big deal, not just for the advancement of scientific achievement, but for inspiring a younger generation to pursue study and a career in the sciences. How many young minds were opened to the fantastic world of space exploration when Neil Armstrong's foot famously touched the surface of the moon? That was in 1969, when entire families gathered together around the one, tiny television set they had between them to witness history. In 2014, when many own several TVs, computers with instant internet access, and have the ability to watch live television on their smart phones, it is mind-boggling to imaging the number of young, impressionable eyes that were fixed on bright screens to witness history, and consequently this shirt:

Now, I don't know why Dr. Taylor chose to wear that shirt. Perhaps that is simply the shirt that he wears on Wednesdays, and no thought went into his wardrobe selection whatsoever. I cannot presume to know what his motivation was when he buttoned up that brightly colored shirt covered in half naked women wearing latex and lingerie. I cannot even presume that he had a specific motivation other than to simply put on a shirt. What I can say, is that as the Project Scientist and an established spokesperson for the Rosetta Mission, that neither he nor any of the many people around him thought that perhaps wearing a shirt that sexually objectifies women on the day that Philae landed and the whole world would be watching might not be the best choice is indicative of the much larger, systemic issue of sexism in the STEM community. Now I am not, by any means, claiming that Taylor himself is sexist. I don't know him. What I am saying is that by wearing that shirt while acting as a representative of the scientific community and of the ESA, a message (intentional or not) was sent that the sexual objectification of women in the workplace is acceptable.

To be clear: I do not believe that there was any malicious intent involved here, but I do feel that it is important to draw attention to these instances when they occur. We, as a society, have collectively determined that sexual harassment is unacceptable, especially in the workplace, and this was no less an example of sexual harassment than slapping the rear end of a coworker. (Before anyone brings up that I'm projecting my American expectations onto a European society, I assure you, it's not acceptable there either.) In my opinion, ignoring this situation as a harmless, albeit unfortunate, fashion faux pas is just as dangerous as claiming "boys will be boys" when an office worker slaps the rear end of a coworker as she walks by.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure there would ever be an appropriate time to wear that shirt in a professional setting, except some restaurant and entertainment businesses. And yes, when I see a misstep like this, I often think that it's amazing how no one else apparently thought to stop the train before it went off the tracks.