American Madness

Intelligent Criticism in the Service of a Better Nation

It’s rocket science…not

Posted by Josh Friedlander | 8 Comments

rocket scienceEver notice how many things are not like rocket science? I saw two uses of the phrase “it’s not rocket science” in today’s papers, so I thought I’d do a quick check for how many are appearing all over the net.

According to Google, “it’s not rocket science” appears in 153 stories in “news” while “rocket science” has 665 mentions (many of which are variations on the “it’s not” theme using different wording, such as “Harbaugh Doesn’t Need Rocket Science To Win at Stanford…”).

Google finds 402,247 mentions of “rocket science” in blogs and over time the cliché seems to be gaining traction, as charted by Google’s cool Timeline browser (result here).

The language log blog has a cool little riff on the phrase and how it’s a silly expression:

How did the phrase This isn’t rocket science came to have its idiomatic meaning “This isn’t all that advanced or hard to understand”? I’ve got a few cliché dictionaries, but they don’t cover it. Why is rocket science a byword for arcane advanced science? Rocket technology is thousands of years old. Sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal powder in a tube, light and retire. A few tests and a little trigonometry will tell you where it will land; a little calculus and some data on thrust and combustion rates and you can work out the acceleration and the trajectory and everything. It’s applied basic Newtonian physics and math, but although space flight demands some advanced science, the science of firing shouldn’t really be emblematic of the most difficult stuff scientists ever got into.

The blog “Bodhi Tree Swaying” notes that Jeremy Butterfield, in his book Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare, lists “it’s not rocket science” among the most annoying English phrases.

I could not, with a quick search, discover the origin of the phrase. If anyone has a clue, please let me know. At the end of the day, and with all due respect to its creator, we have to kill this trite phrase. It’s a nightmare. I suppose you could ignore it, but denial ain’t no river in Egypt.


8 Responses to “It’s rocket science…not”

  1. Hugo Stiglitz
    September 8th, 2009 @

    It emerged after Kennedy bamboozled the American people into thinking going to the moon was a necessary use of tax payer dollars. We must set human foot to lunar soil, no matter the cost, or else the Russians will do it. And we can’t have that!

    Thus, began the propaganda campaign to promote government functionaries as national heroes. Disparate parts of NASA were lumped together into a gigantic umbrella term, “rocket scientist” regardless of their role: engineer, radio operator, electrician, mid-level manager, et al. The government continued to promote the difficulty in putting a man on the moon, the need to spend vast sums of money of the fool’s errand and the smarts necessary to accomplish the task.

    The money funneled to NASA created a bureaucracy of epic proportions, where nothing is easy and even the simplest tasks require a deft hand to maneuver. These brave men and women (mostly men, because at that time, our government run educational system promoted women to stay at home and keep their husbands happy, after all “scientist” was man’s work) were seen as the best and the brightest. And to their tasks went the highest accolades. Rocket science was placed upon the pantheon of achievement by a government frightened of transparency. Had the American people known how much money was directed to shooting projectiles into space, without much achievement, no doubt “rocket science” would have replaced “Rube Goldberg” to describe tasks of redundancy and folly.

    If Obama were smart, he’d follow the lead of O’Kennedy and assign similar pronouncements to our brave health care functionaries. After tonight, I fully expect, “it’s not like we are providing health care to all” to replace the former term.

    Lest we forget, we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.

  2. Jason Ihle
    September 8th, 2009 @

    Who the hell is this guy?

  3. Josh
    September 8th, 2009 @

    Only the Shadow knows.

  4. Mike in NJ
    October 1st, 2009 @

    I believe the phrase, “It’s not rocket science,” is shorthand for, “It’s not interplanetary astrophysics”. “Rocket science” is catchier, but flying to space stations, the moon, and other planets, the really useful application of rocket science, (not to mention warfare, which would be “precision guided ballistic flight”) is the latter.

    And I can tell you, from the limited exposure I had to astrophysics in High School and College Calculus, Differential equations, and more advanced mathematics, it’s some pretty heady stuff, with many sources of gravity to keep track of and some hairy three dimensional geometric relationships to get straight, as it were.

    And by the way, getting 4.4 million pounds of spaceship (shuttle) off the ground, using 6.8 million pounds of thrust into orbit 120 to 600 miles above the Earth, moving from zero to 17,000+ MPH, docking it with a space station with a margin of error of 2 inches, then getting a 230,000 pound brick back to earth unpowered, all the while keeping 2-11 delicate bags of mostly water and some other trivial, miscellaneous elements intact, and make it be able to do it again, takes some of the most advanced science the planet has ever seen.

    So yeah, firecrackers ain’t too complicated, but rocket science really is… rocket science!

  5. Mike in NJ
    October 1st, 2009 @

    Re: Hugo Stiglitz:
    You’re gonna have to forgive me, Hugo, but the complexity of getting people to the moon is still one of the few things ONLY ONE COUNTRY IN THE HISTORY OF EARTH has ever done. That would indicate it’s harder than, say, anything else you can think of that we as a species have ever accomplished yet.

    Saying things like, “The government continued to promote the difficulty in putting a man on the moon, the need to spend vast sums of money of the fool’s errand and the smarts necessary to accomplish the task,” betrays a certain level of ignorance. There’s a reason very few people hold degrees in advanced mathematics and physics – that s**t is hard!

    Pardon my digression, but I see a parallel between saying “Rocket science ai’t so hard” and the controversy over evolutionary biology. That too, is a hard subject, and many people do not study it. As a result, there are people out there who do not “believe” it is true. (as if “believing” something can makes it TRUTH .) And this is a further symbol of the lack of respect for the work, the VERY HARD work that has been done for centuries, the work of HARD SCIENCE. Millions upon millions of experiments to determine whether a thing is true or not. Literal Buildings full of empirical evidence of scientific conclusions, only to be dismissed by some with the words, “I don’t believe in evolution.” (I have yet to hear anyone say, “I don’t believe in Algebra.”) It makes my soul ache to hear, that after all the work these people have done, ignorance can dismiss all that effort.

    Back to the point at hand: Developing “healthcare for everyone” is difficult for a completely different reason – it’s politics, and politics is PEOPLE. And people tend to disagree about… everything.

  6. Jason Ihle
    October 2nd, 2009 @

    It’s important to note, Mike, that the United States is the only country where people you could consider ’serious’ (i.e. politicians; educators; school board members) dispute evolutionary biology and support the crazy-ass ID as an ‘alternate theory’ to be taught in schools. No one else is having this debate anywhere around the globe.

    The problem is fundamentalist Christianity which has such an enormous grip on the social order in the US and politicians who are too scared to come out against it (edit of original comment: the ‘it’ I’m referring to is ID, not Christian fundamentalism).

    But this is just a continuance of your digression away from the topic of the original post. On that topic, I have to say thank you for putting Josh back where he belongs (and that Hugo guy).

  7. Mike in NJ
    October 2nd, 2009 @


  8. Joel Van Impe
    July 8th, 2010 @

    From what I recall, it’s a quote from a NASA engineer in the late 60s or early 70s. A group of engineers had left NASA and started up a company supplying or designing medical equipment.

    When a reporter asked one of the engineers how difficult it was transitioning into the medical field from the space agency he replied, “well, it’s not rocket science.”

Leave a Reply

  • Trust us

    As with Anna Karina, we prefer to remember the U.S.A as she was in the 1960s.
  • Archives

  • RSS Matt Friedlander’s Tumblr Feed

  • RSS Josh Friedlander’s Twitter Feed