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A Mom, a Cook, A Scientist or A Scientist, A Mom, and Forget the Cooking

Publication Date: 2013-04-02

Who could guess an obituary writer could get in such hot water.

Writing for the New Yorker blog, Amy Davidson threw a fit over a New York Times obituary for Yvonne Brill. So many others objected too that the obituary was changed. Here are the first two paragraphs in the original version:

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. "The world's best mom," her son Matthew said.

But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist, who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.

I read that and was touched that "The world's best mom" got the lead. A scientist who cooked for her family and was loved by them.

But all the complainers felt Yvonne Brill's accomplishments as a scientist should have received top billing. Here's the new version of the obituary:

She was a brilliant rocket scientist who followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. "The world's best mom," her son Matthew said.

So we've lost the stroganoff but at least "The world's best mom" is still there.

You can read the snippiness of the New Yorker blog yourself. The blogger insists cooking stroganoff is only one step up from Kraft macaroni. I felt the line spoke to family memories of home-cooked meals.

I cheered for the comment left at The New Yorker by someone signing himself "mathteacher":

Wait a minute! I fail to understand why it was necessary to change the obituary in the first place. Was it the concern over someone in the 42nd century characterizing Mrs. Brill as a cook who dabbled in rocket fuels? Rocket science is a science. Rocket scientists have all kinds of formulas to make things work. Cooking, like child rearing, are arts. There are no formulas, success is way more unpredictable. Moreover, in child rearing measurements are absolutely inaccurate and results can only be assessed after many years of erratic attempts at following a perhaps disastrous path. Making a rocket work is not that hard(full disclosure: I am a dad).

Someone need to acknowledge how difficult it is for anybody to be a really good parent. And I've read a number of accounts of the fact that many eminent scientists make miserable parents. For starters, read about the way Albert Einstein treated his children. There's no way his obituary could have read "World's greatest dad."

I say that Yvonne Brill left a legacy greater than rocket science.

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