Burning Feynman’s Van
What happens when three scientists and an engineer try to change a flat tire?
By Henry Petroski
The television series The Big Bang Theory can be great fun but perhaps too often at the expense of engineers and engineering.
As the title suggests, the show is primarily about scientists. Of the main male characters—Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard—only Howard is not a physicist; he is an engineer, and he takes plenty of ribbing for it. (The three main female characters include Amy, a neurobiologist, Bernadette, a microbiologist, and Penny, an aspiring actress who is working as a waitress.)
In addition to not having a Ph.D. like his buddies—Howard ended his formal education with the perfectly respectable master’s degree, from MIT—he is often presented as a bumbler. Among his failures is a malfunctioning toilet system he designed for the International Space Station on which he spent time, but not gloriously.
In one episode, physicists and engineer alike show themselves to be lacking in practical ability. Since Leonard and Penny eloped, the guys did not have a chance to give him a proper bachelor party. They plan to do so by renting Richard Feynman’s beach house in Baja California, which the Nobelist is said to have bought with his prize money and to which the group travels in his infamous 1975 Dodge Tradesman Maxivan.
With Howard driving at night on a remote road, the van gets a flat tire, and the wheel naturally has to be taken off and replaced with the spare. But as hard as they try, they cannot loosen the last lug nut. It is at this point that the scientists and engineer come up with schemes to show off their ingenuity.
Raj, the astrophysicist, who may see the lug nuts as planets orbiting a hub sun, tries to turn the recalcitrant nut in the direction opposite the way Howard successfully unscrewed the others. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t budge.
Sheldon, the theoretical physicist, recalls Archimedes’s claim that given a long enough lever, he could move Earth. While the physicists try to figure out how to make a long lever from scratch, Howard the engineer produces one—off the shelf, engineers might say. He uses the tall post bearing a stop sign to extend the lever arm of the lug wrench, but to no effect.
Leonard, the experimental physicist, says that scientists should be able to use real science to come up with a means of removing the nut. They try schemes based on percussive shock, thermal expansion, accelerated corrosion, and, finally, exothermic reaction, which they expect will melt the nut off. Without worrying about what this might do to the lug’s threads, the guys fashion some thermite out of rust and aluminum scraped from the van. When they strike a match to ignite the thermite, the van goes up in flames. What might have saved it was a degreeless tow truck driver.
Generally speaking, Big Bang Theory episodes are technically plausible and accurate, though howlers do sneak in now and then. A particularly egregious one that I recall occurred when Howard, testing Sheldon’s engineering knowledge, asks him, “How do you quantify the strength of materials?” Sheldon answers, “Young’s modulus,” and Howard meekly accepts this as correct. In fact, it is wrong. Young’s modulus measures the stiffness of a material, not its strength.
But The Big Bang Theory is entertainment, rather than a course in engineering or science, and an error now and then can be excused as writer’s license. After all, the 250-odd scripts are more likely to have come from literature majors cum comedy writers than from STEM majors. But the show does provide plenty of food for thought about the differences and interactions between engineers and scientists.
The Big Bang Theory provides weekly and rerun reminders that petty arguments and jealousies between engineers and scientists do not solve any of the sticky global problems facing mankind today. Even the National Academy of Engineering has acknowledged that it will take interdisciplinary teams of engineers, scientists, and more to meet the grand challenges it has laid down for the 21st century.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke. His most recent book, The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure, has recently been issued in paperback.
Image Courtesy of Catherine Petroski