Are Rocket Scientists & Brain Surgeons Really Smarter?

A new study seems to disprove the age old notion that folks in certain professions are smarter than the average public, particularly rocket scientists and brain surgeons. And given the research team’s unexpected results, we may have to rethink some rather popular phrases around these two professions’ purportedly elevated intelligence.


Most people have likely heard the sayings “it’s not rocket science,” or “it’s not brain surgery.” That’s because both are typically employed to describe a simple task that an average person of average intelligence can achieve, as opposed to one that would require the higher than average intelligence of someone who works on either rockets or the human brain.

For the most part, these sayings have gone unchallenged, since both professions require a high level of training and technical knowledge. Still, training and education are not always synonymous with intelligence, so the team behind the study decided to test if the sayings are actually true.


With results published in the journal BMJ, the research team employed a customized questionnaire designed to measure overall intelligence. These questions focused on six key areas associated with intelligence: reasoning, cognition, spanning planning, working memory, attention and emotional processing. Also, potentially influential factors like years of experience, handedness and gender were taken into consideration when designing the questions.

Once completed, the questionnaire was given to 79 neurosurgeons and 329 aerospace engineers, as well as 18,257 members of the general public. Afterward, the scores from all three groups were compared, leading to the unexpected result.

“The results show that aerospace engineers and neurosurgeons were equally matched across most domains but differed in two respects,” the press release announcing the study states, “aerospace engineers showed better mental manipulation abilities, whereas neurosurgeons were better at semantic problem solving.”

However, the press release notes, “When these scores were compared to the general population, aerospace engineers did not show significant differences in any domains. Neurosurgeons were able to solve problems faster than the general population but showed a slower memory recall speed.”

In short, the “rocket scientists,” were pretty much as smart as everyone else. And even though the “brain surgeons” had one indicator of higher intelligence, problem solving speed, they were behind the general public in memory recall speed. Bottom line. Individuals in these professions seem to be no more or less intelligent than everyone else.


In the study’s conclusion, the team notes that their research seems to disprove the traditional sayings about brain surgeons and rocket scientists, and that in most situations, new sayings may be needed to take their place.

“In situations that do not require rapid problem solving, it might be more correct to use the phrase “It’s not brain surgery,”” the study authors concede. However, given their overall results, “It is possible that both neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers are unnecessarily placed on a pedestal and that “It’s a walk in the park” or another phrase unrelated to careers might be more appropriate.”

Finally, the team points out that while their study seemingly disproves the elevated intelligence status afforded these two professions, “Other specialties might deserve to be on that pedestal, and future work should aim to determine the most deserving profession.”

I vote for comedy writers, but definitely not editors. Just sayin’.

Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter: @plain_fiction