The other day, the New York Times caused a stir when it ran
an obituary of Yvonne Brill, an 86 year old innovator in rocket propulsion
systems. The obituary began with the claim that she made a mean beef
I don’t know the merits of her recipe, but here’s why citing
it provoked outrage- too often articles about a woman’s scientific
accomplishments are written in a way that suggests we, the readers, should be
equally interested in her domestic accomplishments. We aren’t.
Except. . . this was an obituary, not science reporting. If
it said Ms. Brill made a mean beef stroganoff, chances are the people who knew
and loved her remembered her fondly for the stroganoff and told the reporter as
much. And we know that memory isn’t because they coveted the recipe but because
they coveted the time they shared with her, at meals, at holidays, at
celebrations, and, I suppose, at potlucks too.
When my friends enter the New York Times obituary
demographic, I don’t care if they’ve won the Nobel Prize, I’m going to remember
some for braised veal and others for poutine on a stick. I’ll remember that
after a particularly long day at work, my beau always makes a dinner of steak,
rice and green beans, and I swear it tastes different when he’s the chef. I’ve
made the same soft pretzels for Thanksgiving and Christmas every year since I
was in seventh grade, and someone had darn well better remember that. That’s
what makes us friends and family, not colleagues and associates.
Even if we think only in professional terms, there’s still
harm done when we decide what is, and is not, worthwhile for other people to
value. The truth is that we have no idea what will inspire the next brilliant
contribution to society, so let’s not limit our options.
Look at the example of food. Food carries a *lot* of
different values. There’s food security, childhood nutrition, environmental
protection, rural economic development, food safety, animal welfare, energy demand,
crop diversity, culinary diversity, regional self sufficiency, local self
sufficiency, and you see where I’m going here. . . caring about food isn’t
beneath anyone’s dignity, not even a rocket scientist’s.
Granted, most people aren’t thinking about this long list of
issues while making dinner, but the ideas that shape our careers can come from
anywhere. What begins as a casual interest in food might evolve into any number
of achievements, from inventing a new biofuel to recalibrating foreign aid. Hobbies
matter – especially for brilliant people. Hobbies introduce new ideas and
connect us to new people, they help us think creatively and see beyond the
No one merits a New York Times obituary simply because they
had varied interests and were well loved by people around them, but perhaps
they shouldn’t be remembered based only on their career, either. The true best
practice is to memorialize a whole person, not just a resume.