Labun Jordan: Not Rocket Science

Apr 8, 2013

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 stroganoff.

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 workplace.

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.