Guest Post: Family Man Who Invented Relativity and Made Great Chili Dies

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In an obituary for veteran rocket scientist Yvonne Brill this weekend, the New York Times disastrously failed science writer Christie Aschwanden’s Finkbeiner test for profiling scientists.

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.  —New York Times

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Family Man Who Invented Relativity Dies

He made sure he shopped for groceries every night on the way home from work, took the garbage out, and hand washed the antimacassars. But to his step daughters he was just Dad. “He was always there for us,” said his step daughter and first cousin once removed Margo.

Albert Einstein, who died on Tuesday, had another life at work, where he sometimes slipped away to peck at projects like showing that atoms really exist. His discovery of  something called the photoelectric effect won him a coveted Nobel Prize.

But his devotion to family personal and professional balancing act also won him notice. In 1950, Boys’ Life and Sears Roebuck awarded the former patent office employee their Leafblower SuperDad Award for his steady financial support of his ex-wife and schizophrenic son all through the long years of his happier second marriage to his cousin Elsa Einstein. Also noted by the prize committee was his success in finding a new job after losing his job in Germany in 1933.

Mr. Einstein—or Dad, as his step daughters and long-estranged sons called him—is believed to be the only person of Jewish descent to have developed the theory of special relativity. When Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels targeted Einstein’s work for book burnings, Mr. Einstein shrugged it off, writing, “… I must confess that the degree of their brutality and cowardice came as something of a surprise. But you can’t take these things too seriously, can you? You just have to be cheerful and not get upset when you get insulted.”

Mr. Einstein never got the medical degree his parents had hoped he’d get, but he picked up a teaching diploma in math and physics that allowed for some surprisingly competent work. “Nobody had the right degrees back then, so it didn’t matter,” he told the Times.

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Photo, Einstein’s apartment in Bern: Jacek.NL
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38 thoughts on “Guest Post: Family Man Who Invented Relativity and Made Great Chili Dies

  1. Truly disappointed that you failed to mention Einstein’s love of crocheting and his famous apple strudel.

  2. Ed Yong made an excellent stink about this. NYT then followed up by committing another journalistic gaffe: Changing the obit online with no note about a revision. So links that refer to the original source now lead to something else. If this is their policy in the news department, I can only imagine the mayhem they’re causing.

  3. “Daddy” Einstein was svelte, sexy, and wearing a fashionable, frilly, masculine bow tie during the interview, as he laughed self-deprecatingly and offered cupcakes all around!

  4. Well done! This reminds me of an article that appeared in the Erlangen, Germany newspaper in 1997 on the day that a plaque was placed on Emmy Noether’s birthplace. The large main headline was “Albert Einstein as supporter” and the smaller headlines were “Memorial plaque to commemorate the birthplace of the Jewish mathematician Emmy Noether” and “Posthumous appreciation as `Genius’—discriminated against as academic because of ethnicity and gender”. See http://math.uci.edu/~asilverb/noether/nachricht1.html

  5. He inspired legions of male physics students by eschewing suits and ties for cardigans and loafers with no socks.

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  7. In the course of writing this parody, I took some time to read about Mileva Marić’s life. It was oh, so sad. What a difficult life she had.

  8. I think this whole issue is a PC overreaction. As I wrote on the Knight MIT site: Having not seen the original, is the headline still the same as the original? If it is, I see this more as burying the lede than anything else. That is more of a concern to me than portraying a woman who was a mother/wife *and* rocket scientist in a time when that just wasn’t the norm.

    It speaks to how journalistic style in newspapers has changed. Except in hard news stories, style has changed to be more informal, more magazine like. The Einstein obit parody unintentionally makes that point.

    I see it as the writer trying to present the idea that Brill was a pioneer in that era.

    And once again, if this headline is still the original: “Yvonne Brill, a Pioneering Rocket Scientist, Dies at 88,” then I really think it is an overraction.

    And here is the Time Mag lede of Einstein’s obit which I googled after I wrote that: “Almost every morning for the last 22 years, a self-effacing little man, careless-clad in baggy pants and a blue stocking cap, stepped down from the front porch of a modest frame house at 112 Mercer Street, Princeton, N.J., and trudged off to the Institute for Advanced Studies. At a glance, the little man could have been the caretaker or a gardener. He puffed meekly at his pipe; he sidled in quietly; he seldom spoke unless spoken to. But on a second look, a rare quality seemed to glow in that sad and wizened face, with its disordered halo of white hair…”

  9. Bernie, In the example you chose, Einstein is depicted as rumpled and unprepossessing (his stereotypical persona), but not as a house husband, even though he was married and had children who he must have at least occasionally tended to. In other words, we are not presented with a picture of him as “a father/husband *and* physicist.” Instead we think of him as a physicist. Why is that?

    Here is a counter example. This is the New York Times’ obituary for Richard Feynman.

    “Richard P. Feynman, arguably the most brilliant, iconoclastic and influential of the postwar generation of theoretical physicists, died Monday night in Los Angeles of abdominal cancer. He was 69 years old.

    An architect of quantum theories, a brash young group leader on the atomic bomb project and the inventor of the indispensible ”Feynman diagrams” of particle behavior, he took half-made conceptions of matter and energy in the 1940′s and shaped them into tools that ordinary physicists could understand and calculate with.

    Although his handiwork permeates the foundations of modern science, millions of Americans heard his name for the first time in 1986, when he brought an inquisitive and caustic presence to the Presidential commission investigating the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.”

    It may surprise you to know that Feynman too was a father/husband *and* physicist. Amazing that he was able to manage such a personal and professional balancing act.

  10. Why is there no mention of his innovative habadashery? I will ever be enchanted by that handkerchief with the cleverly twisted corners.

  11. When I read the original obit, I passed by the bits that were fillers, you know, about her stroganoff, being a mother etc and simply marvelled at her tenacity and accomplishments as a scientist. But then, I’m a bloke who respects people irrespective of their gender or any other odious characteristics ……
    Clearly I’m still in need of education

  12. I honestly can’t see the problem with the original obit. When I first read it I thought it was a good tribute to a person. Not a rocket scientist, a person.

    A person’s life, not matter what dizzying heights they may achieve, is a collection of things, and multifaceted. That the author sought to recognise this well-roundedness of his subject I think was entirely appropriate and in fact rather affectionate.

    I hope when my time comes I will be remembered for a range of things and as a well-rounded person in general, not just for professional achievements.

    Shame on everyone who criticised the obit. You were all just looking for an argument where none should have existed.
    Learn to live and let live why don’t you. Stop telling everyone else what they can say and think.

  13. I posted on FB: I thought the original was fine. It was clearly leading up to the rocket scientist but the PC reaction was funny and reminded me of the naming of the street in Ulm where Einstein was born. He was already famous by 1920 and the street was named Einsteinstrasse. When the Nazis came to power, they renamed it Fichtestrasse after German philosopher. After the war, it was renamed Einsteinstrasse. When they told Einstein, he said that Windfahnestrasse (weather vane street) would be more appropriate for German political philosophy.

  14. Bill, admittedly I took a calculated risk on the leaf blowers, and I was thinking about this, but it turns out I was not too far off. According to a quick search, in 1951, the Hartford Connecticut Public Works used a snow blower to clear wet leaves. In 1955, Echo created the backpack duster/mist blower (for pesticides and what not), which was adapted to blowing leaves. Legislation against noisy leaf blowers had already appeared in 1963.

    http://www.leaf-blowers.co.uk/img/general/leafblowerhowtoguides.pdf

  15. @Steve…she only got an obit in the NYT BECAUSE she was an important rocket scientist…the family stuff undermines that achievement in ways that just would NOT feature in any life assessment of a male scientist. If you can show me a male scientist/scholar/artist whose professional obit in a big name paper STARTS with his family domestic abilities/obligations I’ll sit down. I am a mother and a smoking cook. If I am famous enough in my field to warrant a professional obit in anything like a “big” media outlet, I would be furious that my domestic life/hobbies were given higher status than the lifework that got me noticed in the first place.

  16. The original obit was excellent, but the attempts to edit out the warmth were lame responses to a strident minority of readers. The unspoken sadness here is that high achievers are so often single-minded jerks that obit editors do not look for humanizing elements in their life histories.

  17. To commenters who don’t understand what’s wrong with Brill’s obit:
    Historically, European/American societies have ensured women were kept in the supporting role to men’s noble pursuits. A good woman had to be dependent and silent. Given women’s low intellectual capabilities, women were the shadow of her husband, a good husband would train a childish woman properly. That’s the context. This was not implied, but explicitly written. Read any European book on women’s role between the 15th and 18th century. (For example, Juan Luis Vives, “the Education of a Christian Woman” 1524. Vives was viewed as a pro-woman humanist. Yikes!)
    People aren’t complaining about the NYT presenting a multifaceted version of her life, but her value is presented in relation to other people. I know, women have had equal rights for a whole dozens of years, all that historical context is useless now, right?
    It’s about time we talk about women as individuals, and not as complements or dependants. I’m not saying it never happens, but the assumption is still there. An obituary at about her contributions to science and other facets of her personality or hobbies is fine. Writing of her passion for mountain climbing, in the midst of the obituary, is fine. Like an independent person who had a full life surrounded by other people. Not with her value contingent on other people.
    Finally, about the PC thing, it seems to me the new definition of PC is “whatever doesn’t personally touch me”. There’s a concept, the “marketplace of ideas”. When an idea is circulating and some are disagreeing with it, they can use *more speech* to counteract it with an argument. Sometimes, parody or irony is used. No one is crying censorship.
    We’ll be ok, I promise.

  18. @Val
    Then we have a fundamental philosophical difference of view here. I don’t think this is about gender. And as a male professional, to address your key point, I would be very happy for my domestic stuff to have equal or more footing in my obit as compared to my professional life, no matter what I had achieved. Because to me, my life outside work is more important to me; family specifically (I can’t cook to save myself). But this is a highly subjective thing. Some people crave that level of professional recognition, and I do not begrudge them that. I did not know this esteemed lady so I don’t know her mind on that point.

  19. i think VAL #27 hits it right on the nail.

    Obits in the church newsletter, memorial bulletin, local paper – balance IS endearing to present the whole person to those in her community.

    The NYT – to warrant an obit article – is NOT to memorialize a whole person, it is to note a loss to the world of someone who did SOMETHING. Like, fundamentally change the world. Comm satellites = cell phone!

    Val’s correct – let me see the male obits that spend a whole line on their domestic gifts.

    I’ve made the analogy that Emmet Smith & Hines Ward obit would lead with their mirror ball trophy, moving the word “super bowl” to the next line. It is lovely, but not what they are noted for.

    BTW – i got to meet Brill at SWE meetings in NJ in the 90′s. very sharp lady. Very cool.

    BTW – yes, jobs are easier to find than good husbands. Even in this economy.

  20. “He made sure he shopped for groceries every night on the way home from work, took the garbage out, and hand washed the antimacassars.”

    Did Einstein actually do all this? The other thing that strikes me is that we should also point out failings when they exist. For instance Carl Sagan was a lot of good things, but he was also often an absentee father as well as pretty much useless around the house.

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