Mechanical Engineering Has Never Been So Attractive
The Big Bang Theory we are talking about here is the American sitcom created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, centered on the antics of several college-age physicists and engineers working at the University of Caltech. I used to study engineering and landed in this field through an engineering careers job board. I found shows like The Big Bang interesting, but it’s great to see shows like this inspiring students and graduates through entertainment value to develop their future and careers. The show focuses on the scientific and “geeky” pursuits of these characters that young people can relate to, with scientific and pop-culture reference humor.
What sets The Big Bang Theory apart from many of its sitcom peers is its focus on science and intellectual pursuits. While the central characters are often portrayed as socially awkward and clueless, they aren’t mocked for their intellect. Many of the jokes are science-related, and despite whatever social awkwardness the characters might have, they are all respected and successful in their fields. One of the show’s consultants, David Saltzberg, has a Ph.D in neuroscience and is employed by the show to ensure the accuracy and verisimilitude of the show’s humor.
For myself, one character in particular stands out as a role model for young engineers in the show: Howard Wolowitz, an aerospace engineer who, during the show’s ongoing story, has earned a Master’s in engineering from MIT, designed devices for NASA, and become a space shuttle payload specialist, eventually undergoing astronaut training and taking a Soyuz rocket into space to spend several weeks in earth orbit on the International Space Station. Wolowitz even has his own mechanical engineering lab and regularly creates and modifies technological devices (such as robots) on the program.
While Howard is the only regular engineer character on the show, The Big Bang Theory has taken pains to make mention of other, non-fictional engineers, not only referring to them in the course of the show, but sometimes giving them guest roles on the show. Many scientific and engineering figures have made appearances on the sitcom, in a break from the usual celebrity “stunt casting” sitcoms often use to garner audience interest.
For example, in one episode, Howard’s friend Raj suggests they make his astronaut nickname “Howard ‘Buzz’ Wolowitz,” making reference to iconic astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon during the 1962 Apollo Mission. Aldrin himself had a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the United States Military Academy at West Point, and is portrayed as something of a role model for Wolowitz himself. Aldrin also made a guest appearance on the show in 2012, passing out Halloween candy to children and asking if they’d walked on the Moon.
Another prominent real-life engineer on the show is Mike Massimino, a NASA astronaut and Space Shuttle veteran with a degree in aerospace engineering from MIT. Massimino worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, and builds robotics systems and machine interfaces for NASA. Massimino appeared in a 2012 episode of the show to help prepare Howard for his payload specialist duties on Expedition 31, a real-life expedition to the International Space Station that launched in July 2012.
Why is this important? Because The Big Bang Theory provides a great example of how entertainment media can get young people excited about science and technology — by featuring real engineers performing real feats of engineering, even in a humorous context. The characters of The Big Bang Theory, rather than being mocked for being scientists and engineers, embrace who they are and are passionate about their fields. The science and technology of the show isn’t glossed over, or portrayed as magic – the writers and consultants work hard to depict it as real, viable, and most of all, interesting and entertaining.
Though the characters of The Big Bang Theory are far from perfect — they can be flawed like many sitcom characters — they are never ridiculed for their expertise or their skills, whether those skills lie in astrophysics, neuroscience or engineering. Young people learn from the characters of The Big Bang Theory that being an engineer can be exciting, interesting, and most of all, fun.
Jenny Beswick is a fan of both The Big Bang Theory TV sitcom and engineering. Having studied engineering and then found a geeky role through the Telegraph engineering career job board, Jen feels inspired to spread the news of engineering and science. You can find her on Google+ and Twitter.