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Essay: Mother's Day From a Scientific Perspective

White House photo via Wiki Commons

A provocative obituary ran in the New York Times on March 30, 2013. It began as follows: “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 “she” was Yvonne Brill a brilliant chemist who invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites from slipping out of orbits. Her patented inventions are still used. At NASA, she also helped develop, the rocket motor used in the space shuttle. When she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Arthur Fry and Spencer Silver were also honored. They invented Post-its.

Brill was barred from studying engineering at the University of Manitoba in Canada. She fooled them! She got a bachelor’s degree in chemistry plus math and eventually a master’s in chemistry. Late in life she said she went into rocket engineering because “I reckoned they would not invent rules to discriminate against one person.”

The always optimistic mom once said, “You just have to be cheerful about it and not get upset when you get insulted.” Wise words.

Yvonne Brill’s story is not an isolated one. When Maria Goeppert-Mayer won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1963, her San Diego newspaper headline read “S.D. Mother Wins Nobel Prize”. Unable to find paying work, Goeppert-Mayer did her research as a barely tolerated hanger on in her professor husband’s lab. There, she discovered and explained that protons and neutrons in the nucleus of an atom are arranged in shells much like electrons are arranged around the nucleus.

Marie Curie was not allowed to speak at the awards ceremony in 1903 when she shared her first Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel. Because she was the first woman laureate, the committee tapped Pierre. After Pierre died, singlehandedly, she won her second in Chemistry in 1911. She gave the lecture. Her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie shared with her husband, the chemistry Nobel in 1935. They both lectured. Since mother and daughter understood radiology, in WWI Marie and Irene went to the front to X-Ray wounded soldiers saving untold lives and ensuring entire families are alive today because of it.

These four women are a small sample of many such stories.

As an optimistic person, I want to follow Yvonne Brill’s admonition to be cheerful even when you’re insulted. I want to say, of course, Moms can win Nobel prizes while doing the laundry and dusting. I want to think the Times writer was putting cooking stroganoff and raising kids above rocket propulsion because as a writer you lead with the important stuff. The headline for Goeppert-Mayer can be read two ways: first, OMG-a mother? They must give Nobel Prizes with Happy Meals; or second, OMG a mother! But of course!

Mothers Day is fraught with symbolism. The reasons moms are celebrated and remembered are numerous and sometimes odd. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how to bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan. But the day is fast approaching when no longer will anyone feign shock when a mom wins a Nobel Prize or any other for that matter. By the way, the incoming flak was so bad about Brill, the Times changed her obit to begin with her scientific discoveries. Hurray for moms!

Lake Effect Essayist Judy Steininger is a Professor Emerita at the Milwaukee School of Engineering where she has taught chemistry and literature. She currently teaches in the Great Books program.

Judy Steininger is a Professor Emerita at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, where she leads the Great Books Dinner and Discussion Series. In May 2019, the Council for Wisconsin Writers awarded her an honarable mention in the Kay W. Levine Award for Short Nonfiction contest. Steininger has served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, and describes herself as a never-say-quit golfer.