I remember a few years ago as I waited with anticipation for a tourist who was going to be the very first to experience a brand new tour. I had offered to meet him at his hotel but he insisted that he was happy using the London Underground and that he was only 3 or 4 stops away on a direct line then he assured me that he would be with me in 10 minutes or so.
As it happened I was waiting for over an hour. He had got a train in opposite direction but given that had he realised this after one stop, he could easily have switched trains and reached me so quickly that I wouldn’t have noticed any delay.
I never found out what mistake after mistake must have compounded his errors but I do remember thinking in my head that the journey wasn’t actually brain surgery. To my surprise my tourist told me he was in fact a brain surgeon from South Africa.
I’m sure many of us have used the phrase ‘it’s not brain surgery’ or ‘it’s not rocket science’ when someone fail to do something exceedingly simple but of course this all assumes that rocket science and brain surgery is difficult.
According to new research, it isn’t. Researchers from University College London, King’s College London, Imperial College and others tested the intelligence of 600 aerospace engineers – rocket scientists – and 148 brain surgeons, another profession intrinsically linked with intelligence.
Both groups were around 70 per cent male, most of the aerospace engineers were based in mainland Europe and the majority of the neurosurgeons were in the UK.
Test scores were compared with more than 18,000 members of the general public – and the analysis revealed that aerospace engineers and neurosurgeons were equally matched but differed in two key ways.
Rocket scientists were better at mental manipulation, imagining what figures and shapes looked like from different viewpoints. Neurosurgeons were better at semantic problem-solving, understanding definitions of rare words. They were also able to solve problems faster than the general population but showed a slower memory recall speed.
But when the researchers compared rocket scientists and brain surgeons with members of the public, they found “no significant difference”.
Aswin Chari, the study author and a doctoral candidate from University College London, said: “Despite the stereotypes depicted by the phrases ‘it’s not rocket science’ and ‘it’s not brain surgery,’ all three groups showed a wide range of cognitive abilities.
“The results suggest that both neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers might be unnecessarily placed on a pedestal and that ‘it’s a walk in the park’, or another phrase unrelated to careers, might be more appropriate.”
The researchers wrote: “Despite [both rocket scientists and brain surgeons having] stereotypes, and the higher proportion of males, aerospace engineers and neurosurgeons vary in their cognitive aptitudes as does the general population.
“Our results highlight the further efforts required to widen access to these specialities to mitigate impending staff shortages and ensure a diverse workforce to drive future innovation.”
I guess in future we should perhaps use phrases such as ‘A piece of cake’ though anyone who has watched great British Bake-Off will know making a perfect cake is likely every bit as serious as rocket science or brain surgery.
If you like words and idioms then perhaps you might like my book Straight From The Horse’s Mouth which is available as a Paperback as well as in formats such as Kindle and iBook.