Real Scientists Have Families, Too

I was re-reading bits of James Gleick's Feynman biography, and ran across a bit near the end (page 397 of my hardcover from 1992) talking about his relationship with his children, talking about how ordinary he seemed at home.I particularly liked the sentence "Belatedly it dawned on them that not all their friends could look up their fathers in the encyclopedia." It occurred to me that that would be a good line for an obituary.

This is not due to any particularly morbid cast of mind on my part, but lingering blowback from the kerfuffle over the New York Times obituary for Yvonne Brill a couple of weeks ago. The initial version led with a comment about her cooking before getting to her achievements as a rocket scientist, which sparked a lot of outrage, and even the edited version annoyed a lot of people. This also prompted a spoof obituary of Einstein that got a lot of positive comments.

I refrained from saying anything about it at the time because I didn't feel like I had anything especially useful to add to it (my favorite of the things I read on it was Michelle Meyer's take, for what little that may be worth), but some aspects of the resulting commentary really bugged me, enough that my subconscious wouldn't let go of it. Thus, the obituary coming to mind when I read that bit about Feynman, and eventually this blog post.

The main thing that annoyed me was the fake Einstein obituary, which was supposed to make the point that references to home and family life read as absurd when applied to a male scientist. It reads in part:

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.

The thing is, that reads as absurd not because it's applied to a male scientist, but because Einstein was a failure in that area, and you don't normally write obituaries that refer to notable personal failings of the deceased. The general practice is to step delicately around character deficiencies, unless it's done for a particular effect, as with Hunter Thompson writing about Nixon, or the recently much-linked Russell Brand piece on Margaret Thatcher.

But would it really read as absurd to put family in the foreground for a male scientist who was actually involved with his family? I'm not so sure. When I was initially thinking about this, Feynman was on the mental list of male scientists whose family life you probably wouldn't want to mention (there are, after all, lots of stories about his skirt-chasing), but that section of Gleick's book made me re-think that a bit. I don't think anyone would explode with outrage if somebody led off a Feynman tribute with a story about how his kids thought he was an easily distracted goofball who told great bedtime stories, and only later realized the extent of his fame. It would probably come off as charming, and given the image he constructed for himself, he probably would've enjoyed such a thing.

(I doubt any actual obituary for Feynman did this, in part because I think the shift to more "humanizing" obituaries is relatively recent, and his would've been a bit more formal. But if it had been done, I doubt very much that it would've read as insulting to his scientific legacy.)

This comes back to my previous comments about the "Finkbeiner Test": that the ultimate solution to the problem is not to expunge references to family and children from articles about women, but to demand them in articles about men. I don't think it's at all helpful to take the stance that Real Scientists don't talk about family-- that just leads to denigration of any scientist, male or female, who takes an active role in their family life. And until we invent Bujold-style uterine replicators, that's necessarily going to fall heavily on women.

Now, does that excuse the specific example of the original NYT obit for Brill, with its infamous beef stroganoff reference? Not at all; that phrasing was pretty terrible. Just because I think it's important to mention the family lives of Real Scientists doesn't mean that any and all mentions are automatically okay-- these can easily tip over into being condescending, as the stroganoff thing probably did. It's important to be careful with this stuff, particularly when writing about women.

But at the same time, we should be careful not to go too far in the opposite direction. Because, again, if the burden of children and family falling too heavily on women is a problem, part of the solution to that has to be for men to take on some of that burden. And for that to happen, it needs to be socially acceptable and even expected for male scientists to be actively involved with kids and family. And that, in turn, means that it needs to be called out when appropriate to do so.

This doesn't mean that we need to insert acid remarks about failed marriages and neglected kids into the obituaries of male scientists who had them (and to the extent that the fake Einstein obit is implying that his behavior is typical of male scientists, that's every bit as insulting as the stroganoff thing). But we should absolutely expect and demand that charming family stories get told prominently about male scientists, too, in the appropriate contexts.

More like this

I couldn't care less about charming family stories, almost everyone has a family so it's hardly notable or interesting.

I disagree. You end up sacrificing some family life to have a scientific career, and I think it's important not to sacrifice too much. So, seeing how really scientifically-successful guys managed (or failed) on the family front is important.

Yeah, almost everyone has a family, and brains and fingers and toes. Frequency shouldn't breed contempt.