What's Harder Than Rocket Science?

“Oh come on, this isn’t ROCKET SCIENCE!!”- has come to mean that a task at hand is not very difficult, much unlike rocket science, which is apparently the most difficult thing in the world.
I now have a friend who is a rocket scientist, so what replacement phrase could I use with him that reflects the same sentiments as that overused phrase?

“This isn’t brain surgery, you know!” Sure, brain surgery is hard, but let’s get away from science altogether for this one.

Is these something that people do in law school that’s hard that can be summed up in a quip? What do Business grad students have to do that’s hard? How 'bout librarians? There must be tasks about there that are actually difficult than rocket science, right?

“Parsing the subjunctive”?

Rocket science is not so very difficult. The core of rocket science is propulsion technology, and this really hasn’t changed appreciably since the 1960’s. NASA and the US military use the same materials in the engine systems, the same fuels, and the same basic approach that they did then. Ditto on heat shields. There have been some minor changes in the fuselage, specifically lighter weight composites – but this isn’t exactly rocket science. The only radical changes would be to the avionics and computer systems.

L-space travelling can be quite tricky.

When we were working on Laser Propulsion many years ago, one of my co-workers used to tell people that she was a rocket scientist. It was a bit of a stretch, but maybe not so much.

Arguably any discipline on the current edge would be “harder than rocklet science/brain surgery”. I’d include brain research (which just got a big building at MIT) and all disciplines concentrating on probing the basic structure of matter – High Energy Physics, String Theory, Quarks, and the like.

Chinese algebra? (from a song)

I was going to say Chinese Algebra!
Chicken lips
Doing Coke in a Convertible

I only know the phrase from a Tom Waits song.

Is it used elsewhere?

Solving Pi

Well, as a librarian, I do find that there are some tasks that take up 100% of my brain…

For instance, sometimes I need to search for medical information written in another language (that I can’t read or speak.) I have to look up the name of the condition in a dual-language dictionary, do my search in that language, and use some clues to find out if I’ve gotten good information. On a very lucky day, I can find the same articles written in English and that makes life very easy. The rest of the time I have to go back to the dictionary. Argh.

Sometimes I also have to research topics that, while supposedly written in English, are so filled with technical jargon that they might as well be written in a foreign language. A recent example - I had to describe Hyporeninemic Hypoaldosteronism in layman’s terms. That took awhile, as I had to re-read all of my articles about 20 times until I actually understood what I was reading.

However, I also spend a lot of my time stuffing paper into folders and doing such glamorous tasks as sweeping the floor and dusting shelves (no brain use at all.) I just got back from cleaning the public-access mice and keyboards with disinfectant wipes, yuck.

And these changes are radical indeed. It’s not quite right to say that they use the same engine systems and materials, but it’s unfortunately too close to the truth, with new large liquid engine develepment pretty much stalled in early-to-mid 'Seventies and using the de Laval nozzle used in Goddard’s time. Solid boosters (for ICBMs/SLBMs) have seen some developments in nozzle design (expanding nozzles), propellants (high energy low sensitivity casts), and flight control, but these developments are more evolutionary and revolutionary. There has been development and testing of aerospike and single expansion ramp nozzles, but nothing that has come to a production application. The liquid engine being used on the Ares I booster for the Orion spacecraft is the J-2X, a development of the J-2 from the Saturn family of rockets, and the liquids from the first stage of the Ares V is the RS-68 (also used in various configurations of the Delta IV Heavy) which–along with the cancelled RS-83–are the first large liquid engines developed in the US in the last 25 years. The RD-180 engine used in the competing Lockheed Martin Atlas V EELV is derived from a Russian design used on their N-1 rocket. (These were ordered destroyed when the Soviet Moon shot program was cancelled but were mothballed by a far-sighted bureaucrat and revealed to shocked Western engineers after the fall of the Soviet Union.)

On smaller engines and station-keeping thrusters work with ion and electric motors continues apace, which application on many commerical satellites and use on interplanetary craft like Deep Space 1 and Hayabusa. Larger plasma-based propulsion is also an active area of research, but is slow going due to the complexities of magnetoplasmadynamis. Research into nuclear thermal rockets (or electric/plasma engines with a nuclear fission power source) has stalled due to political factors and technological hurdles, and of course the nuclear pulse propulsion ORION-type rocket is completely politically unviable.

That being said, rocket science and engineering is far from “not so very difficult”. Even using 40 year old technology rockets still push the edge of material capabilities, and the complexity of the systems is such that elaborate, labor-consuming efforts in quality assurance and risk abatement are required to obtain confidence in a successful launch, and even then a 95% launch success rate for a booster design is considered acceptible. (If commercial aircraft crashed in 1 out of 20 flights, there would be no air travel.) In liquid fuels we’re still using primarily kerosene, LOX, hydrogen, and occasionally storable hypergolics like hydrazine not because we haven’t come up with anything better but because there doesn’t appear to be anything more chemically energetic for mass or volume (depending on what you are trying to minimize) in nature. Getting more performance out of liquid rockets means making the engine more efficient, not finding higher energy fuel, and that becomes an exercise in incremental improvement, inching toward maximum ideal performance of the fuel itself.

Personally, I think “brain surgery” (neurosurgery, neurology, neurophysiology, and neuropsychiatry) are more complex than rocket propulsion insofar as we have only a very limited understanding how the equiment even works on a fundamental level, and the complexity of the brain is certainly many orders of magnitude more sophisticated than anything manmade. When we have a seemingly intractible problem at work, our comment is usually “Well, it’s not brain surgery.”


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Pension Reform and ERISA

And that is the point. Launch success is astonishingly low, redundant quality control is a necessity, and production is slow and tedious because no time or money has been invested in more elegant solutions. It is a more conservative discipline than banking. Rocket science embraces the status quo whereas most other sciences keep questioning and pushing the envelope. That is why I don’t think rocket science is the gold standard for excellence in science and engineering.

Solving pi is trivial. It’s remembering all the digits that’s the hard part :wink:
As to the OP, my sister is a rocket scientist (well, sort of), and there are plenty of things she has trouble with…

I’ve always thought that finding balances between environmental and economic factors to be much much harder to balance than a strict engineering problem. If for no other reason than, barring gross failures (massive, immediate environmental collapses, or massive, immediate financial collapses) it’s very hard to say when a given compromise has worked as well as the drafters might have hoped. At least Stranger and his co-workers can point to the launch and answer, “Did it work?”

In the environmental field it seems to often be a matter of trying to balance negative evidence rather than anything positive.
Of course both take a back seat to the complications involved with parenting, where one never knows exactly how a specific act will affect the ‘finished product.’
ETA: I just noticed this little sentence of Stranger’s:

I should hope ORION type launch systems remain unviable. And I’m generally in favor of expanding nuclear power. :wink:

But not always “Why did it work?” and sometimes (hopefully not often) “Why did it fail?”

The economic problems you’re talking about fall into the class of what are known as wicked problems; problems without specific solution paths or indeed, fixed metrics. I’m not sure that they can even compare to more concrete technical areas like rocketry, neuroscience, or physics insofar as it’s nearly impossible to put a box around or comprehensively describe what the problem even is. They’re so hard (or actually, so squishy and ill-demarcated), you can’t even define how difficult they really are.

During the original program it was estimated that a “clean” ORION type rocket using high efficiency boosted fission bomblets launching from a solid pad would produce less radioactive fallout than a coal-fired energy generating plant; it wasn’t an insignificant hazard (roughly equivilent to a single multi-megaton range nuclear weapon) but not the kind of world-ending threat some fear, either. There’s probably less hazard from the products of this than from groundwater contamination using toxic, caustic chemical fuels previously used in commerical rockets. (However, the manufacture and processing of nuclear material produces its own toxic, caustic, and radioactive wastes.)

The major techincal problem with ORION is one of scale; it has to be massive to absorb the impulse from the bomblet (even with a two staged damped pusher), and such a craft isn’t going to have any realistic abort mode if the main engine stops working entirely. You could put personnel in an escape tower that would separate in the case of a post-launch abort, but the main craft–thousands or tens of thousands of tons–the main hull, bomblets and all, is going to come crashing back to Earth like a massive, slow-moving meteorite. There were other technical issues as well, but beyond the abort issue, the main unjumpable hurdle was one of politics and public perception.


Understanding women. According to virtually every male I know it is in fact the hardest thing to do on the planet, perhaps the universe.

The MOHS scale of hardness

  1. Falling Off a Log
  2. Pie
  3. Sunday Morning
  4. Quartz
  5. Selling Ice to Eskimos
  6. Chinese Algebra
  7. Rocket Science
  8. Brain Surgery
  9. Dying
  10. Comedy

Letting go.

Raising triplets.

My twins drive me past my limits on a regular basis, I can’t imagine what it would be like with 1 more kid. It’s not that any one particular task is difficult (well, except maybe going grocery shopping), it’s that it never lets up, there is no “winning” and they constantly shift tactics in their assault on your nerves and furnishings.