O'Really?

July 20, 2009

How to be a Rocket Scientist

Today, the 20th July 2009, is the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing. There has been plenty of global coverage, stargazing, astronautical analysis and heavenly commentary recently. But for me personally, the Apollo 11 anniversary brings back fond memories of rocket science lessons [1] – specifically, the things I learned in Chemistry at school. Our teacher used to launch water rockets during classes and these hands-on demonstrations were followed with more down-to-earth calculations back in the laboratory. This was an entertaining way to learn about fundamental concepts like pressure, acceleration, gravity, turbulence and energy. But there were also three very important rules that apply generally to all kinds of science and engineering:

  1. Reach for the stars. A cliché, but it’s true. John F. Kennedy said America continued to pursue the ambitious space race goals, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because it is hard, 90% of science and engineering doesn’t even make it off the launchpad (let alone into orbit) and it often goes horribly, horribly wrong. That’s the deal – but it shouldn’t stop you reaching high. Sometimes you make giant leaps.
  2. It’s not rocket science. Another tired cliché. This one has become so well worn that there is a saying amongst NASA rocket scientists at the famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California :

    “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to be a rocket scientist.” [2]

    So despite appearances to the contrary, many kinds of science (and engineering) aren’t rocket science. You don’t always need big, complicated, expensive and state-of-the-art technology accompanied by armies of highly qualified experts. Sometimes you do, but not always. All that water rocketry requires is an empty drinks carton, a bicycle pump and some water – it really isn’t rocket science [3].

  3. It should be fun. As you probably already know (or can imagine) water rocketry is great fun. Science and engineering are fun too – it’s all too easy to get bogged down in the inevitable politics, bureaucracy and other sideshows – but at the end of the day the net effect should be fun with a fantastic big capital F. If you’re not having fun then Houston, we’ve had a problem. Something, somewhere needs fixing.

The thing about these rules is that they apply to all kinds of science, technology and business [4]. So if you’re a scientist or an engineer of some kind, or even a budding rocket scientist or entrepreneur, it’s worth stopping to ask yourself three simple questions: 1) Are you aiming high and charting unknown territory? 2) How much do you really need all that complicated technology? 3) Are you having fun?

[CC-licensed picture Reflexology via propellerhead and rocket enthusiast Steve Jurvetson]

References

  1. Tony Hull (1986) Rocket Science for Secondary and High School students (ages ~14-18) This teacher also happens to be my Dad, but that’s another story. Hey Dad, if you’re reading this, there’s a bloke from NASA who wants to get in contact with you about your “environmentally friendly” technique for rocket propulsion :-) I gave him your email address.
  2. Jim Longuski (2004) Advice to Rocket Scientists: A Career Survival Guide for Scientists and Engineers (isbn:156347655x)
  3. Clive Whichelow and Hugh Murray (2007) It’s Not Rocket Science: And Other Irritating Modern Clichés (isbn:0749951591)
  4. Paul Smaglik (2008). Beyond rocket science: Huntsville, Alabama, the original home of NASA and military weapons development, makes a move into biology Nature, 453 (7196), 818-820 DOI: 10.1038/nj7196-818a

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