Saturday, December 20, 2014

Rocket Scientists

Strictly speaking, there's no such thing as a rocket scientist; scientists study nature whereas rockets are man-made. We don't say cars are designed by automobile scientists. A lot of science goes into rockets, mainly chemistry and physics, but when it comes to the rocket itself, it's all engineering.


I used to have a couple of t-shirts like this one, but I stopped wearing them because it gets annoying to just have women throwing themselves at you all the time.


People do go around calling themselves materials scientists even though 99% of the materials they work with are man-made. Even plain old pig-iron is not found in nature. It's true that materials scientists have taken an interest in natural materials like skin and wood, but that's a very recent thing. Most people who study natural materials are geologists.

I wondered when the term "rocket scientist" came into use, so I ran a Google Ngram. The results are really clean and interesting. The first occurrence is in 1942, which seems about right. People did build rockets before 1942, but almost none of them would be mistaken for scientists. It took a really fringe, flaky scientist to get involved with rockets back then. It was seen as career suicide.

However, I found an even earlier occurrence by doing a direct search on Google Books, sorted by date. In the Science News Letter of 1936 published by Science Service, Robert Goddard (who else?) is referred to as a "rocket scientist". Science Service is the former name of the Society for Science & the Public, the nice folks who run the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which I would never have won, yet was a judge for once. Hey, they have to get judges from somewhere. The winners become such big shots that they don't have time to judge science fairs.

This is a good time to mention the Cleveland Rocket Society, founded in 1933. Yes, 1933! It was a project of Ernst Loebell, a German-born engineer. Every rocket scientist needs a rich patron, and his was apparently a descendant of Mark Hanna, industrialist and mastermind behind the election of McKinley as President. Loebell did his experiments at the Hanna estate in Kirtland Hills, Ohio, which is intact and for sale (warning: link has annoying music.)

Usage of the "rocket scientist" slowly ramped up until 1960 when it leveled off for 25 years. "Rocket scientist" really took off from 1985. I suspect the big jump in usage was due it taking on an ironic sense. You know, "What rocket scientist invented this piece-of-crap blender?"

From "Modern Mechanix" magazine, 1934



Saturday, December 13, 2014

Don't You Hate Blog Posts That Are Just a Bunch of Random Thoughts?

1. Science is to engineering as statistics and rulebooks are to baseball. I always follow the stats, but they're meaningless in and of themselves.

2. I bought a jar of pickles today and the label had the Twentieth Century typeface on it, one of my favorites. Even though it was designed in 1937, to me it always conjures up the nineteen seventies. It was in the school readers they used in my grade school -- the very early ones where there are only a few big words on each page.

3. I'm reading the memoir of my favorite sportswriter, Frank Deford, and boy did he not like Rodney Dangerfield.

4. Had to buy a bottle of prune juice today because my digestive system is nearly 46 years old. I forgot how bad it tastes; haven't had any since I was a little kid reading books set in Twentieth Century typeface. But if you add a little prune juice to Coke, it'll taste like Dr. Pepper, even though the Dr. Pepper people insist it doesn't have any prune juice in it. Too bad they don't make a caffeine-free version of Dr. Pepper. I can't take caffeine and I love genealogy, so can it be long before I turn Mormon?

5. My dad should have been a sportswriter -- he wrote, and wrote well, for his high-school newspaper -- but for some reason it just never happened. I started thinking about my dad this morning when I had to go into an auto-parts store and I saw all the clamps and little lengths of pipe they sell for DIY exhaust system repairs. Dad and I spent many a Saturday afternoon under his cars, patching together the awful, rusted-out exhaust systems of the 1970s. Later on, I designed exhaust systems and was there when Honda made the momentous switch to stainless steel. They were the last ones to make the switch. This is why exhaust pipes now last more than two years.

6. Carrying on the tradition of father and son auto maintenance, I had my boy pump gas and fill the tires today at the gas station. He whined through the whole thing because it was cold and he wasn't wearing gloves, but afterward, he said with as much pride as a thirteen-year-old will admit to, "Well, I guess I know how to pump gas now." Mission accomplished.