Follow TV Tropes


This Ain't Rocket Surgery

Go To

Lionel: So, how do you earn a crust?
Jeff: Well, I'm a scientist. I work mainly with rockets. It's, um, pretty tough work. What do you do?
Lionel: Well, I don't mean to boast, but, uh...I'm a brain surgeon.
Jeff: Brain surgery? [Beat] Not exactly rocket science, is it?

The brain surgeon and rocket scientist are often held as the benchmark for careers that require highly intelligent, skilled, and successful people. They get this accolade not only for their obviously complicated and specialized jobs but also for the importance of their roles. The brain surgeon spends hours with a scalpel to the body's most vital organ, where even just the tiniest mistake can cause serious damage, which can also mean countless lawsuits if not going to jail for the rest of your life. The rocket scientist deals with sending multibillion-dollar projects into the loftiest frontier — and, as amply demonstrated by the U.S.'s earliest space rockets, as well as more recent interplanetary probes, one mistake can result in disaster.

A high standard of success is applied to anyone who becomes one of these two roles. Their intellect is not associated with absent-mindedness nor cold villainy using science with malicious intent. They are obviously able to accomplish great feats. So the level of rocket surgeon or brain scientist can leave a big empty gap when one fails to live up to it.

As a benchmark, then, they become a synecdoche for all smart, difficult jobs. If something is to be implied to be easy, it will be unfavourably compared to them. "It's not like it's rocket science." may be muttered, while "You're hardly a brain surgeon." may be used to break the bad news to The Ditz that they didn't get into Harvard's med school.

This doesn't mean the job is easy. For instance, being President of the United States is generally agreed to be quite difficult, only forty-five mennote  have managed to get the job at all, but it ain't rocket surgery. Now Mr. President may be able to console himself, but in general, if there is a surgeonnote  or aeronautical engineer in the family, the shadow can loom over a younger member's head — especially if they have a Jewish Mother.

A common punchline is for the user to realize or be reminded immediately after saying the phrase that what he's describing actually is Rocket Surgery. A variant is to claim that an instance of rocket science "isn't brain surgery", or vice versa, with obligatory Lampshade Hanging.

Sadly, this trope is about two different things — Rocket Science or Brain Surgery, and has nothing at all to do with the actual combination of Rocket Surgery, which is either performing surgery while upon a rocket or performing surgery with rockets, either of which would be intensely more cool than either alone. As such, the scenarios where one is used will usually differ. Brain surgery will usually be brought up when a character is performing a task that requires exceptionally precise control of your actions; rocket science will more often than not be brought when a character is either designing or making something that includes egregious amounts of math and a complicated layout.


    open/close all folders 

  • Abbey National used this in an ad campaign once. A guy asked a brain surgeon to explain ISAs, and got the response, "What do you think I am, a rocket scientist?" After thinking to himself "Rocket scientist, close enough", he goes to Real Life astronomer Sir Patrick Moore who was also stumped. Then it turned out the ISAs being offered by Abbey National were so simple anyone could understand them.
  • Inverted in one commercial for a fast-food restaurant chain in which two co-workers are eating lunch during their break, one with, apparently, a more expensive but less appetizing meal. The one with the fast-food goes into a spiel on the cheapness and more filling-ness of her meal and how obvious it should be which is better before breaking into hysterical laughter. When prompted, she explains with, "And you're a rocket scientist!"
  • One commercial for Eggo syrup featured a suit at the Eggo company asking why nobody's ever thought of making branded syrup to go along with their own waffles. "It's not rocket surgery!" he says.
  • A commercial for possibly IBM featured two surgeons discussing the advertised product while operating on a still-conscious patient. When the user-friendly nature of the product is brought up, one says "It's not brain surgery." Cue agitated look from the patient.
  • A commercial for a refrigerator has a man trying to impress two women by claiming to be a rocket surgeon. The women figure out he's lying after he is unable to find the water dispenser on the front of the fridge.
  • In 2015, there is a Public Service Announcement campaign in Philadelphia whose tagline is "It's Road Safety, Not Rocket Science," reminding people of the importance of things such as waiting for the light to turn green and looking both ways before crossing the street "just like your first-grade teacher taught you."
  • Another financial services ad opened with "Name three things that are difficult. Quantum physics. Brain surgery. Getting a loan. Actually, scrub that last one..."

     Anime and Manga 
  • Completely averted in Monster, despite the protagonist being a brain surgeon. Apart from referencing his skill as a doctor, there is no mention of his intelligence.

     Comic Books 
  • Lampshaded during Peter David's run on The Incredible Hulk, when "Professor" Hulk comments, "It's not rocket science. Of course, I am a rocket scientist..."
  • In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Baxter Stockman gets annoyed at being demanded to deliver results quickly.
    This is not rocket science — it's far more complicated than that, and it takes time.
  • Doctor Strange is one of the seven most intelligent people in the Marvel Universe, and he was a brain surgeon before he became a wizard.
  • A The Simpsons comic B-plot has Lisa and Homer discover people faking footage of the Mars rover. A government lady explains that two-thirds of all space missions fail horribly, and because people don't like to see a billion-dollar project their taxes paid for go up in smoke, they just film fake footage of what should have happened to please everyone. Lisa asks why they can't simply make probes and ships that work, and a scientist exclaims "Oh right! It's that easy! You know why they say "it isn't rocket science"? This is rocket science!" The government lady apologizes on the scientist's behalf, explaining that he's been grumpy ever since he lost a big probe on Uranus, which he's been understandably mocked for.

     Fan Works 
  • In Rocketship Voyager, B'Elanna Torres finds herself up against the all-male clique of Voyager's engineering crew and gripes, "I've got a Master's degree in rocket science, and your Acting-Chief Engineer had me stripping asbestos off the heat vents because he says it's not safe to work on the Cochrane Drive!"

     Films — Animated 
  • Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius: Sheen asks Jimmy a question while they're all working on spaceships to pursue the Yolkians.
    Sheen: Hey, Jimmy! *waves a small green stick in the air* Do these fusion reactors need fuel rods?
    Jimmy: Come on, Sheen. It's not rocket science! You just have to...actually, I guess it is rocket science. No fuel rods, Sheen!
    Sheen: Oh, OK. *tosses the rod behind him, which explodes in a hilarious and ridiculous fashion on impact*

     Films — Live-Action 

  • Discworld:
    • Archchancellor Ridcully once commented that something should be quite simple. "It's not rocket magic."
    • In The Last Hero, Ponder Stibbons is drawn wearing a shirt with the words "Actually, I Am A Rocket Wizard" on it.
  • The non-fiction book Command and Control by Eric Schlosser is a history of US nuclear weapons safety (or lack thereof). Naturally this trope becomes an Obligatory Joke.
    You didn't need to be a rocket scientist, Kennedy thought, to figure out why the missile exploded.
  • Averted in Space Cadet (Heinlein) when the protagonist it told that astrogation is actually an easy subject because like all knowledge-based subjects it can be taught via Sleep Learning. Applying that information is the hard part.
  • Do-it-yourself Brain Surgery & Other Home Skills was a parody of do-it-yourself books by Stewart Cowley. The other skills including building your own ocean liner and cryogenic freezing.

     Live-Action TV 
  • Kel's unseen parents in Kenan & Kel are a Rocket Scientist and a Brain Surgeon despite him being an apparent moron.
  • Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles had a funny example where John compliments Cameron on getting better at using eyeliner before pointing out that it isn't exactly brain surgery. Cameron being Cameron states that it would have to be a lot sharper for brain surgery.
  • A sketch on That Mitchell and Webb Look provides the page quote - an obnoxious brain surgeon at a party shoots down everyone's job descriptions with "well... it's not exactly brain surgery, is it? And I would know!" Until he meets "a scientist" who "works mainly with rockets"...
    Lionel: "I've got a joke, actually: What's the difference between a doctor and a brain surgeon? One's... not exactly brain surgery, and the other IS BRAIN SURGERY!"
  • In The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon gets insulted when his sister says that she proudly tells everyone he's a rocket scientist. He's a theoretical physicist, and looks on rocket science as no different than mindless manual labor. Another character, Howard Wolowitz, is an aeronautical engineer who has designed components for the International Space Station, which makes him the closest to an actual rocket scientist, but other characters look down on him as "inferior" because he only has a Masters and not a Doctoratenote .
  • Married... with Children has Kelly masquerading as a scientist from "the National Aeronautics and Space Administration". Upon being told that it's impressive that someone as young as her is working there, she replies, "Well, you know, it isn't exactly rocket science."
  • Stargate Atlantis used the "actually it kind of is" variant at least once, when Dr. Keller is trying to remove a parasite from McKay's brain.
  • From one infamous session on Judge Judy:
    Judge Judy: "...if you break someone's property, you're supposed to pay for it. It's not rocket science. What is rocket science?"
    Dumb Blonde: "Rocket science is when scientists find out things about space. (audience explodes) ...I think."
  • Ricky from the Trailer Park Boys in reference to an easy task: "It's not rocket appliances."
  • On a comedy edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Jack Black was unsure of an answer, so he called his rocket scientist parents. He wound up walking, not wanting to risk the $125K he had won for charity. However, since this wasn't exactly rocket science, it was revealed that his mom had given him the correct answer.
  • The West Wing. A Jewish Mother joke from Bradley Whitford. She points at a picture of the president, "See that guy? The guy standing next to him is a doctor."
  • Averted on Medium, where Joe IS a rocket scientist (ie, an aerospace engineer), but never calls attention to it.
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus - Mr. Gumby sees Dr. Gumby:
    Dr. Gumby: HELLO!
    Dr. Gumby: ...HELLO!
  • The Equalizer. The leader of a race hate group is pitching to several radical right-wing organizations for support. They sneer over the fact that he's a refrigerator salesman. He mentions the rocket scientist trope when pointing out that the other members of his group are all blue-collar workers, so he's entirely qualified to lead them.
  • Dollhouse. On one engagement, Echo's Neural Implanting gives her the personality of a ditzy college student. The man who created the persona quips: "So, not exactly a rocket scientist. Normally that would be irony, but here one never knows."
  • Doctor Who. In "The Girl Who Waited", the Doctor Motor Mouths some complex instructions to Rory on how to rewire a console. When he looks confused, the Doctor says, "Come on Rory, it's not rocket science, it's basic quantum physics!"
  • Gold Rush!: One eighth season episode has Parker's mechanic mention this trope by name while repairing a loose battery connection on a water pump.
  • Herman's Head. When Herman and Jay appear on a TV dating show, Jay enters Herman as "unemployed" because he says it makes him more realistic, but enters himself as a "racing car driver and brain surgeon".
  • For All Mankind. NASA runs into a snag with the female astronaut program because the piss tube on the lunar module has only been made for men. When they suggest that Molly Cobb wear a diaper the entire trip, Ed Baldwin is not impressed and orders them to come up with a better idea. "You're NASA, you're rocket scientists. Figure it out."
  • Subverted in an exchange from Power Rangers: Dino Thunder, where Hayley states about Tommy "A rocket scientist, he ain't." "And you are? "Among other things, yes."

     Newspaper Comics 
  • In a Get Fuzzy Bucky the cat tries to make a trap for their neighbor's ferret. This trap required blueprints on several sheets of paper. Bucky claims this is not rocket science. Rob claims that figure six dares one to say otherwise.
  • In FoxTrot, Roger explains in one of his Must Have Caffeine scenes that anything one does before 8:00 AM qualifies as brain surgery.
    • In a story arc where Roger gets the flu, he asks a busy Andy to make him some chicken soup:
      Andy: Good grief — we're not talking brain surgery. All you have to do is open a stupid can and dump it into a pot.
      [Roger leaves and returns with an opened can in a pot]
      Roger: Now what?
      Andy: NOW we talk brain surgery.
  • One The Far Side cartoon showed a group of people in lab coats looking at a cracked, misshapen rocket, with the caption, "Gentlemen, I think we should face the fact that we're not exactly rocket scientists."
  • This caption contest from the June 26, 2006 New Yorker.
  • In Zits, Jeremy's dad Walt names this trope exactly while being congratulated. The congrats die down quickly.

     Stand-Up Comedy 
  • The punchline to a Rich Hall joke about the secret of comedy: "You gotta be able to say stupid things intelligently, or intelligent things stupidly. Whatever, it ain't rocket surgery!"
  • Played with in a bit by Jim Gaffigan, musing what brain surgeons would say instead: "I love how we measure the difficulty of everything versus brain surgery. 'Hey, it ain't brain surgery.' What do brain surgeons say? 'It ain't, trying to talk to women.'"

     Theme Parks 

     Video Games 
  • A Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego level set in The Space Race has the player trying to help the first cosmonaut get into orbit on schedule. The cosmonaut claims fixing the ship is rather simple and "not rocket science", leaving the helper character to point out that yeah, it is rocket science.
  • Interesting example, the final boss of No More Heroes (a really hard fight and a freaking ton of crazy plot twists) has a kickass battle theme called, appropriately: "Rocket Surgeon".
  • Portal: "We're not banging rocks together over here!"
  • Referenced by Kerbal Space Program's tagline: "How hard can rocket science be, anyway?"
    • And when you go into the VAB for the first time in a save, the help dialog contains: "It's not like we're rocket sc... er"
  • Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! includes a side mission called "It Ain't Rocket Surgery". In it, you fulfill a brief quest to obtain body parts and brains, which you then install into several rockets as guidance systems, under the instruction of a rather ebullient Dr. Spara. Hilarity ensues.
    Dr. Spara: THREE-TWO-ONE BLASTO! WOO! ...Oh, man, it's heading for my house!
    Athena: You're not actually a scientist, are you?
  • In The Sims 4, the achievement for maximizing the Rocket Science skill is named "It's Not Brain Surgery".
  • Brought up in No Straight Roads when DJ Subatomic Supernova is berating an NSR employee over the phone how to launch a satellite. It should be noted that DJ Supernova was an astrophysics professor before taking up music, so of course he'd know a good amount about space and such.
    DJ Subatomic Supernova: Such incompetence. It's not rocket science. *beat* I mean it is, but...

  • A webcomic based off of Kerbal Space Program is actually called It's Hardly Rocket Science.
  • In Yahtzee Takes On The World, an old webcomic by Ben Croshaw, resident Mad Scientist Paul once said "I'm a rocket scientist, not a brain surgeon."
  • An exchange from Freefall:
    Sam: You make something hot, the ship goes up. It's not rocket science.
    Helix: Um...
    Sam: Okay, so it is rocket science. But how hard can it be?
  • An example from Schlock Mercenary, when two non-medics contemplate performing battlefield brain surgery:
    Ebby: We can do this. It's not...ummm...
    Tailor: "It's not rocket science?"
    Ebby: Exactly. It's not rocket science.
    • And later in the same arc, when two non-pilots contemplate performing a complex spacecraft rendezvous:
      Schlock: You make it sound like rocke- errr... brain surgery.
      Buranabot: Brain surgery would be easier since the lump of meat in question would likely not be zipping past the surgeon at three-tenths the speed of light.
  • What If? has a variant—"Hitting a comet" compares remotely landing a probe with remote laser surgery.

     Web Original 

     Western Animation 
  • In Kim Possible, the titular character is the daughter of a rocket scientist (her father) and a board-certified neurosurgeon (her mother). In one episode, where her parents come up with the idea of a summer job at a fast-food place to ease her money issues, she remarks:
    Kim: A rocket scientist and a brain surgeon and this is all you could come up with?
    • Also, on the subject of her annoying younger twin brothers, at that moment firing a rocket of their own invention through the house (in So the Drama):
      Kim: This is what happens when a rocket scientist and a brain surgeon reproduce.
    • And in another episode, Kim's father is struggling with his tax forms and trying to call an accountant to help him.
      Mr. Possible: Yes, I know it's tax season, that's why I'm calling an accountant. (pause) Look, ma'am, I'm no rocket scientist - well, actually I am - (whoever is on the other end hangs up) Hello? Hello?
  • The Simpsons
    • In a Halloween special, Smithers is initially startled when Mr. Burns plans to remove Homer's brain using an ice cream scoop. Mr. Burns retorts, "This isn't rocket science. It's brain surgery."
    • Then, in "Viva Ned Flanders", Homer agrees to take part in a Lance Murdoch stunt. Lance tells Homer that it's dangerous...
      Homer: I'll figure it out! Geez, it's not rocket science!
      Lance: Well actually, there are several rockets mounted to the-
      Homer: Boring!
  • Teen Titans: A dismembered Cyborg loses his temper over Beast Boy's inability to follow his instructions to rebuild their rocket:
    Cyborg: Look, this isn't rocket science! *Beat as Beast Boy glares and Cyborg realizes what he just said* Okay, so it is rocket science. But it's not that hard!
    Beast Boy: Well, maybe if you actually told me what to do instead of using techno lingo...
  • One episode of Bounty Hamster revolved around Marion the hamster being split into varying personalities aligned with the Seven Dwarves. The "Dopey" specimen said both "it isn't rocket science" and "it's not brain surgery" at varying times. And yes, he said "it's not brain surgery" two seconds before finding out it was. Ditto with rocket science.
    "Actually sir, it is!"
  • The Venture Brothers: When Dr. Venture is showing off his Walking Eye:
    Dr. Venture: It's not rocket science! ...well, it could be considered a branch of rocket science.

     Real Life 
  • Anyone who's ever been an aerospace engineer has invoked this straight and has played around with it (subverted, averted, double subverted- the whole lot). For example, the relatively routine space missions to repair the Hubble Telescope and other satellites involve rocket surgery in a very literal sense.
  • Dr. Ben Carson, a successful brain surgeon, had two unsuccessful attempts to seek the nomination for President of the United States. While he was undoubtedly a skilled surgeon, his lack of charisma and general lack of popularity, along with various verbal gaffes and bizarre religious opinions showed that skill at one job doesn't necessarily translate to the other.
  • In this story on Not Always Working, a supervisor calls out an employee using the "rocket science" version of the phrase, only to have the employee respond that he's a physics major and can do rocket science. Thereafter, the supervisor switched to the "brain surgery" version.
  • On the second flight of SpaceX's Falcon 9, a crack in the second stage engine bell was discovered just a few days before liftoff. Instead of replacing the entire engine, which would have taken a whole month, a surgeon drove out to the rocket, which was vertical on the launchpad, rode a crane about 50 meters up in the air, took a pair of metal shears, and cut off the cracked part of the engine bell. At first, NASA couldn't believe what they'd done, but in the end, the rocket flew nominally despite a slight reduction in efficiency and delivered the first cargo Dragon capsule to the ISS.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): It Aint Rocket Surgery


Brain surgery v rocket science

A brain surgeon brags about how hard his profession is, but gets put in his place when he meets a rocket scientist.

How well does it match the trope?

4.88 (8 votes)

Example of:

Main / ThisAintRocketSurgery

Media sources: