Rocket scientist who also made "a mean beef stroganoff" inspires debate on how to write about lady-scientists

Rocket scientist Yvonne Brill honored by President Obama. (Courtesy of Ryan K. Morris/National Science & Technology Medals Foundation)

Yvonne Brill, a Canadian rocket scientist who developed jet propulsion technologies, died recently at 88, after a long career propelling human beings toward the stars. The New York Times obituary by Douglas Martin began with a quote about her cooking and mothering skills:

“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.”

Brill developed the concept for a new rocket engine, the hydrazine resistojet, but the paper of record starts off with her beef noodle skils.

It's a sweet comment from her grieving son, yes; but obituaries of prominent male scientists don't open like that. And obituaries of prominent women in historically male-dominated professional fields very often do.

After much public outcry—Douglas Martin must be punished!—the Times edited the lede to omit the stroganoff. Vegans and feminazis rejoiced.

I kid, I kid.

But seriously, the internet-drama over the NYT's crappy Brill obit leads us to something valuable: a discussion around how to write about female scientists.

Ladies and non-ladies, in the spirit of the Bechdel test, from Christie Aschwanden writing at doublexscience: the Finkbeiner test.

To pass the Finkbeiner test, the story cannot mention

The fact that she’s a woman
Her husband’s job
Her child care arrangements
How she nurtures her underlings
How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
How she’s such a role model for other women
How she’s the “first woman to…”

Here’s another trick. Take the things that are said about a female subject and flip them around as if they were said about a male. If they sound ridiculous, then chances are good they have no business in the story.

Read the rest. Great stuff. Required reading if your name's Douglas Martin, and you're writing about Scientistesses.

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