So You Wanna Be A Rocket Scientist

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This is rocket science.

“It’s not rocket science” is a phrase we’ve probably all used at one point or another–in frustration over a whining child or an inept employee, or just as reassurance to someone we’re trying to teach to use a web browser. The phrase was coined in the 1980s, replacing the previous term “It’s not brain surgery.” Rocket science had officially become the most difficult thing in the world.

What does it really entail, though? There are hundreds of rocket scientists today–how hard can it really be?

Some of the early rocket scientists were well-known geniuses, such as Albert Einstein, who published his theory of general relativity in 1915. The theory was revolutionary, but so difficult to understand that there is a very popular story about the three people who understood it.

Sir Arthur Eddington was an astronomer, physicist, and mathematician who championed Einstein’s theory and wrote a number of papers attempted to explain it. The story goes that during one of Eddington’s lectures he was asked by a student:”Professor Eddington, you must be one of three persons in the world who understands general relativity.” Eddington paused, unable to answer. The student continued “Don’t be modest, Eddington!” Finally, Eddington replied “On the contrary, I’m trying to think who the third person is.”

Today relativity is understood by scientists and student world-wide. Extensive study has made it less frightening and new, and the collective intelligence of the world has increased as a result. So is rocket science still the hardest thing to learn?

Einstein-formal_portrait-35The Wikipedia page on rocket science redirects us to aerospace engineering. Aerospace engineering is the study and construction of aircraft and spacecraft. An aeronautical engineer must have a solid understanding of mathematics and physics before he can begin building a rocket. And even then, it requires teams of people and millions of dollars to get one air-born and, given the recent loss rate, it’s still far from an exact science. However, the number of people working on building rockets has increased dramatically over the last few decades. Instead of only two countries racing to be the first on the moon, we have dozens of countries working in cooperation to learn, explore, and discover new frontiers. Instead of requiring government support to cover the expenses of rocketry, private organizations in space flight are springing up left and right. Being a rocket scientist today is not only possible, but it’s a growing field with a huge number of job opportunities.

So what is the most difficult field in the world? Today’s genius is Stephen Hawking, and Hawking is well-known for his work on black holes and M-theory, the attempt to unify all the conflicting branches of science. His work is so difficult that even at the consumer level it’s mind blowing, and his theory is so bizarre that it requires a huge number of imaginary dimensions to make it work. The main focus of string theory is an attempt to reconcile relativity with what is, arguably, the most difficult field of study in the world: Quantum Physics

So you can beat that math test, or driving exam, or relationship problem. After all….it’s not quantum physics.


Katie Lynn Daniels is the author of Supervillain of the Day, and the mastermind behind Vaguely Circular. She blogs about science and things that are peripherally related to science. You can read all her posts here.


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