victoria_wyatt's picture
Associate Professor of History in Art, University of Victoria
"The Rocket Scientist"

It's time for "The Rocket Scientist" to retire.

This is "The Rocket Scientist" of cliche fame: "It doesn't take a Rocket Scientist to know...." 

"The Rocket Scientist" is a personage rather than a principle, and a fictitious personage at that. He (or she) was constructed by popular usage, not by scientists. Still, the cliche perpetuates outdated public perceptions of scientific principles, and that's critical. "The Rocket Scientist" needs a good retirement party.

I'll start with a disclaimer. My dreams of that retirement gala may appear tinged with professional envy. I have never heard anyone say, "It doesn't take an Ethnohistorian to know...."  I never will. So yes, the cliche does slight the humanities—but that's not my concern. Rather, "The Rocket Scientist," as popularly conceived, dangerously slights the sciences. Our earth cannot afford that.

"The Rocket Scientist" stands outside society, frozen on a higher plane. Widely embraced and often repeated, the cliche reflects a general public's comfort with divorcing science from personal experience. The cliche imposes a boundary (of brilliance) between the scientist and everyone else.

This makes for popular movies and television shows, but it's insidious. Artificially constructed boundaries isolate. They focus attention on differences and distinctions. In contrast, it's the exploration of relationships and process that feeds rapid scientific developments today: systems biology, epigenetics, neurology and brain research, astronomy, medicine, quantum physics. Complex relationships also shape the urgent challenges identified in this year's Edge question. Global epidemics, climate change, species extinction, finite resources—these all comprise integral interconnections.

Approaching such problems demands an appreciation of diversity, complexity, relationships and process. Popular understanding of contemporary science demands the same. We can only address urgent global issues when policy-makers see science clearly—when they view diversity, complexity, relationships and process as essential to understanding, rather than as obstacles to it.

At present, though, constructed boundaries pervade our institutions and policy structures, not only our cliches. Examples abound. Universities segment researchers and students into disciplinary compartments with discreet budgetary line items, competing for scarce resources. ("Interdisciplinary" makes a good buzzword, but the paradigm on which our institutions rest militates against it.) The model of nations negotiating as autonomous entities has failed abysmally to address climate change. In my provincial government’s bureaucracy, separate divisions oversee oceans and forests, as if a fatal barrier slices the ecosystem at the tideline.

Time suffers, too. Past gets alienated from present, and present from future, as our society zooms in on short term fiscal and political deadlines. Fragmented time informs all other challenges, and makes them all the more dire.

So much of our society still operates on a paradigm of simplification, compartmentalization and boundaries, when we need a paradigm of diversity, complexity, relationships and process. Our societal structures fundamentally conflict with the messages of contemporary science. How can policy-makers address crucial global issues while ignoring contemporary scientific principles?

The real world plays out as a video. The relationships between frames make the story comprehensible. In contrast, "The Rocket Scientist" stands like a snapshot, fictitiously yet firmly alone on a lofty pinnacle: apart from society, not a part of it. Yes, it's just a cliche, but language matters, and jokes instruct. It's time for "The Rocket Scientist" to retire.

I'll close with another disclaimer. I mean no offense to real rocket scientists. (Some of my best friends have been rocket scientists!) Real rocket scientists exist. They inhabit the real world, with all the attending interconnections, relationships and complexities. "The Rocket Scientist" embodies the opposite. We'll all be well served by that retirement.