You wouldn’t expect to see a mechanical engineer portrayed on network television very often, period, but on the number one sitcom in the U.S.? Well, character Howard Wolowitz from The Big Bang Theory is used to taking on the impossible. Just look at the odds of him marrying the beautiful Bernadette. But when he’s not trying to keep his marriage together and please his overbearing mother, he’s been a part of some interesting engineering work. David Saltzberg, science consultant for the show and professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA, says the staff takes pains to make sure the facts are accurate.
Take Wolowitz’s work on the space station. “The writers talked with NASA to make sure they got it right,” he says. “Now, for fixing the space station toilet, they actually thought up what a weak spot would be. A few months after the episode, the real space toilet had almost exactly that same problem.” For our mechanical engineer, the challenge was inventing a device to help waste material avoid the spinning turbine in the toilet, otherwise known as “The Wolowitz Zero Gravity Waste Disposal System.” Let’s just say his friend Raj Koothrappali had an interesting joke involving something hitting the fan.
David Saltzberg is a science consultant for the hit showThe Big Bang Theory.
The space station plot line also led to real-life NASA astronaut Mike Massimino making a guest appearance. Having helped the show in the past, Saltzberg said they found Massimino too funny not to get him in front of the camera.
Other engineering props have also been a challenge. From a hydraulic thermal press to (of course) toast paninis to finding a 3-D printer to making miniature action figures of Wolowitz and Koothrappali, they never know what the script will call for. “The propmaster Scott London has built a lot of things for the show,” he says. “They’re lucky they have someone so mechanical.”
But maybe the biggest engineering challenge on the show is Howard himself. Before he settled down, he would do just about anything—anything—to get a girl. A line of “How’d you like to visit a secret government facility?” led to the subject of his affection getting the Mars Rover stuck in a ditch. He didn’t get a second date.
Even though The Big Bang Theory is a big hit in the science community, that doesn’t mean it’s never criticized. “It was the second episode where they do some welding of aluminum with an Oxy-Acetylene torch,” he says. “An engineering friend later told me he thought that it could catch on fire.” But then Saltzberg goes on to say that other people have refuted that claim.
It just shows once again that it’s true what they say: Everyone is a critic.