That excellent comedy show That Mitchell and Webb produced this sketch.
It turned out that this sketch inspired some researchers to investigate whether rocket scientists and brain surgeons were smarter in general than other people. The answer is no.
It may not be rocket science, but researchers have found aerospace engineers and brain surgeons are not necessarily brighter than the general population.
Researchers examined data from an international cohort of 329 aerospace engineers and 72 neurosurgeons who completed 12 tasks online using the Great British Intelligence Test (GBIT) from the Cognitron platform, as well as answering questions around their age, sex and levels of experience in their speciality.
The researchers said the study was, in part, carried out to lay to rest the question of whether one of the professions had the intellectual upper hand – a tension made famous by the Mitchell and Webb sketch in which a swaggering neurosurgeon is slapped down by an aerospace expert who says: “Brain surgery … it’s not exactly rocket science is it?”
However, the team found few differences between the cognitive abilities of aerospace engineers and neuroscientists, although the results suggest the former had higher scores for attention and mental manipulation – such as rotating objects in one’s head – while neurosurgeons showed higher scores in semantic problem solving – such as definitions of rare words.
“Essentially what we think it shows is that everyone has a range of skills, some people are better at some things and other people are better at other things, and it is very difficult to be better in everything across the board,” said Aswin Chari, a neurosurgical trainee at Great Ormond Street hospital and an author of the study.
Referencing the two professions in the study, Chari added: “It is not that they are better at everything, but they are better at certain things that make them good at what they do.”
It may therefore be best to ditch rocket science and brain surgery idioms for phases like “it’s a walk in the park”, added the researchers.
This perception that the sketch parodies is pretty common. When people ask me what I do as a career and I tell them that I am a theoretical physicist, many of them look impressed and will even openly say that I must be very smart. I quickly dissuade them because I have always been leery of the idea that ‘smartness’ is some kind of property that can be measured on a linear scale and used to compare people. Furthermore, the idea that because one works in a particular field, that indicates that one is smarter in general than other people has always seemed dubious. It may well be true that one has more knowledge in some narrow areas and also have some technical skills that are not widespread, but that is about it. Even those are usually because one has spent a lot of time developing that knowledge and skills, not necessarily because one has some innate cognitive abilities.
The whole debate about what inspires someone to devote their whole lives to mastering something does not seem to me to be very fruitful. The spark may be due to something innate or it may be due to some early influences such as teachers, family, friends, etc. or it may be both. We may never know. But there is no question that mastery requires a lot of work.