Stroganoff Over Science?

by Doug Allen

Over the weekend, the NYT ran an obituary for Yvonne Brill, a pioneer in rocket science and recent recipient of the National Medal of Technology. The obituary originally started with this:

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.

Robert Gonzalez argues that this intro downplays her scholarly accomplishments:

Brill is a big deal in the world of rocket science. In the 1940s, she was quite possibly the only woman in the United States doing work in the field. In the 1970s, she developed and patented the electrothermal hydrazine thruster – a rocket propulsion system used by communication satellites to maintain a geosynchronous orbit around Earth. … All of this is, of course, mentioned in The New York Times‘ obit, which ran yesterday. Tragically, it is mentioned only after this spectacularly awful lede.

Melinda Hennenberger is more sympathetic:

Martin’s obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill attempted to underscore her accomplishments by placing them in the context of other 88-year-old women who followed husbands around the country and stayed home to raise children for long stretches. … This perceived slight is irony gone awry, not a literal exaltation of stroganoff over science. But as the great Mary McGrory once warned me, “Nuance is overrated; clarity is the thing.”