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

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