It’s Not Rocket Science… or Brain Surgery

Rocket scientists and brain surgeons aren’t all that different from the rest of us.

An article just published in the British Medical Journal Christmas Issue showed that neither rocket scientists (329 aerospace engineers) nor brain surgeons (72 neurosurgeons) are really all that more intelligent than the general public (269 264 UK respondents, skewed in favor of university graduates).

The article was fully peer reviewed, although the Christmas issue does tend to favor more light-hearted studies.

Researchers sought to settle the debate of which profession was intellectually superior. To do this, they had volunteers complete a set of 12 online tasks using the cognitron server. Essentially, the tasks measured various dimensions of human cognition including memory, attention, planning and reasoning, and emotion processing.

Aerospace engineers were not statistically different from the general public in any domain. Neurosurgeons displayed faster problem-solving speed, but slower memory recall.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

So what are we to make of this?

This study underscores a very important point… innate intelligence, however it is defined, is not necessarily the decisive factor in determining one’s career. Just because you take a test that says you’re “smart” doesn’t mean you’re destined for a life solving the world’s most complex problems. And perhaps even more importantly, if you happen to face some challenges in school, they can be overcome.

That said, I don’t think it’s fair to think that just anyone can get into these high-profile professions. You still need extreme persistence, patience, dedication, and hard work. And it’s also important to acknowledge the roll of fortunate circumstances.

Last year, the Veritasium YouTube Vlogger reported a very simple and interesting thought experiment on the 2017 NASA Astronaut Class. Of over 18,300 applicants, only 11 went on to become astronauts. And keep in mind the threshold minimum qualifications for those 18,300 applicants was already pretty high. In the thought experiment, they assumed that 95% of the outcome of the selection process was based on a combination of skill, experience and hard work. The remaining 5% came down to luck or fortunate circumstances. For each of the 18,300 applicants they randomly generated a “skill” score out of 100. These represented all those controllable and innate qualities. They also generated a luck score out of 100. These numbers were then combined as 0.95*skill + 0.05*luck to arrive at the score that represented the overall judgement of the selection process. The top 11 were chosen to become astronauts. This process was repeated a thousand times. Quite interestingly, the average “luck” score of selected astronauts: 94.7. Only 1.6 of the top 11 would have been there based on skill alone.

With luck playing only a 5% factor the other 9.4 selected astronauts would have been different given a different roll or the dice.

This occurred because you had a large group of people and you’re looking as a very small group of the top performers. The differences between the top candidates on the skill side are only marginal. In circumstances like this, the outcome can be determined by factors such as whether or not you woke up with a cold on the physical fitness assessment day or the speed of your internet connection for an online IQ assessment.

Getting into high-profile professions like aerospace engineering or neurosurgery, or even achieving lofty goals, such as becoming a best-selling author, are attainable. But they are as much about effort, opportunities, environment, and just plain luck as anything else.