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Rosetta mission scientist cracks sex jokes while wearing a shirt covered in scantily clad women

Project scientist Matt Taylor wears an interesting shirt during an interview with moderatoe Monika Jones about the Rosetta mission. (ESA)

The European Space Agency's Matt Taylor looks more like a rock star than the stereotypical scientist.

Instead of a lab coat, he answered questions about the Rosetta mission covered in tattoos. He looks like the kind of guy you might expect to push boundaries a little bit, making science seem like an act of rebellion. In short, he makes it seem cool.

But during appearances tied to Wednesday's historic landing of the Phildae probe on a comet some 300 million miles away, Taylor may have gone too far.

Asked during an ESA webcast why the Rosetta mission was pursuing a comet, Taylor responded with a cheeky double entendre, calling Rosetta the "sexiest mission there's ever been."

"She is sexy, but I never said she is easy," he joked, before actually answering the question.

But it was Taylor's choice of shirt that really raised eyebrows during the interview: A retro-looking, short-sleeved button-down covered in scantily-dressed women along the lines of pulp science fiction classic "Barbarella."

Female scientists and technology journalists were quick to voice concerns on Twitter. Katie Mack, a theoretical astrophysicist, said:

Maggie Koerth-Baker, a journalist and Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard, tweeted that it showed that the space agency didn't notice "casual misogyny" among its employees.

Rose Eveleth, who covers technology for the Atlantic, sarcastically pointed out why the shirt hit so many nerves:

(She was later bombarded with tweets from angry fans suggesting she kill herself.)

The whole debacle even resulted in a hashtag: #shirtstorm. ESA did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Taylor's choice of attire.

During a recent online chat with the Wall Street Journal, Taylor talked about how he gained acceptance as a scientist despite his tattooed look. "The people I work with don’t judge me by my looks but only by the work I have done and can do. Simple," said Taylor, who has worked for ESA since 2005.

Surely, that's a sentiment his female colleagues can empathize with. But women in science, and in other industries, don't always have that luxury -- with media write-ups sometimes focusing on their appearance before addressing their skills and studies showing that moderate make-up use is correlated with perceptions of female competence.

In a way, it's nice to see that Taylor's questionable attire choices turned the tables, even if briefly. But the combination of his risque jokes and his decision to represent the ESA in a racy shirt may help explain why some women say they do not feel entirely welcome in the scientific community.

It seems likely someone did eventually pull Taylor aside, because he appeared in a later segment wearing a plain black shirt. But the damage was already done. As science blogger PZ Myers noted, Taylor and his shirt may be the most memorable image of the day that the Rosetta mission's Phildae lander touched down on a comet, potentially overshadowing the immense technical achievement of the decade-long mission.