Nerd Nite Globalfest

(OR How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Esoteric Minutia)

This post was written by Rick Mullin, author of the blog “The Fine Line,” business reporter for C&EN, and, apparently, a nerd.

I arrived early and waited outside with the first two nerds on the scene. We sipped our coffee next to the chalkboard indicating we had come to the right place: “Nerd Nite Globalfest” at the Brooklyn Lyceum.

Yes, I went to Nerd Nite Globalfest.

My business journalist colleagues demurred when the home office (C&EN headquarters in D.C.) inquired as to whether one of us in the Manhattan bureau might want to swing by the event for a day and see what it’s all about.  But I gave it a little more thought:  “Nerd Nite,” I said to myself. “A conclave of people so unlike me that I will have an opportunity to do some truly objective reporting.”

Or … not.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Nerd Nite would be an excellent place to assess the pop culture phantasmagoria into which science would seem to be sliding all helter skelter, what with the rise of science-y sit-coms and TED Talks. And what better place than Brooklyn, N.Y., to investigate the conflation of nerd and hipster—a troubling social phenomenon that threatens to turn the definition of nerd upside down.

I realized I had some strong opinions. But I kept them to myself while chatting with my two nerd companions, Cristina Romagnoli and Gunther Oakey outside the lyceum this past Saturday.

Romagnoli told me how she had attended a previous Nerd Nite in Orlando, shortly before moving to Brooklyn this summer.  “I felt that I’d found my folk down in Florida,” she said. And these folk told her about the Brooklyn Globalfest, which was obviously an ideal way to get back with her people in her new hometown. “So I showed up last night and met up with the five Nerd Bosses from Orlando!”

Oakey told a familiar story of grade school ostracism followed by nerd solidarity and collectivism in boarding school, after which things got even better. “Luckily, we are in the Golden Age of Nerdom, where movies and pop culture are all, sort of, glorifying nerds,” Oakey said.

Inside, I met organizer Matt Wasowski, who is the “Big Boss” of Nerd Nite. He explained to me how the series evolved from a regular gathering of scientists in a bar in the Jamaica Plain area of Boston in 2003. The bartender begged these people to stop talking, or to try to organize their endless science discussions into something like a monthly meeting, “and get it over with in one fell swoop.”

That worked. And the idea caught on, with Nerd Nites now taking place in more than 60 cities around the world, including Dublin, Sydney, London, Amsterdam, Santiago de Compostela (the capital of the autonomous community of Galicia in northwestern Spain), and most major cities in the U.S. The global event in Brooklyn succeeded in being at least continental, Wasowski said, as several people from Canada showed up along with folks from Austin, Ann Arbor, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and other metropolises.

The Nerd Night concept, Wasowski said, has also succeeded in branching out from “hard science” to disciplines such as history and art. On a typical Nerd Nite, three experts give a 20-minute talk meant to be entertaining yet informative.

“We are trying to strike a careful balance and keep it from almost being too fun,” he said.

What lay ahead for me on Saturday was not your typical Nerd Nite, however. It was a Nerd Whole Day.

The bar opened a little after noon, and presentations got underway. These ranged from a nostalgic, visual-aids-intensive talk on the long-dismantled “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” ride at Disney World to a graphic presentation by an art historian from Edmonton who became a female body builder. She described her diet, exercise, high heels, and a wardrobe failure at her big competition, for which she apologized that she had no photo documentation for Nerd Nite attendees.

There were presentations on the sex habits of snakes and bees. And some of the snake moves were even enacted on stage by presenter Rocky Parker (a chemical ecologist/reproductive endocrinologist specializing in the interaction between hormones and sensory systems as a post doc at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia) and a volunteer female from the audience.

David Shuff, the Brooklyn nerd who gave the “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” presentation, told me that nerdom is all about passion for esoteric minutia and that Nerd Nite gets it right. “What I like about [the Big Boss’s] particular take is how broad it is,” Shuff said. “His philosophy is that if you are passionate about a topic, then you’re a nerd. If you are the type of person who gets excited by someone else who is excited to talk about their esoteric topic, then you are a nerd.” Computer geeks, policy wonks … nerds all.

I chatted up the former competitive body builder, Lianne McTavish, who is a professor of art history, design, and visual culture at the University of Alberta (her title on a separate business card is “feminist figure girl”), about the tension between art and science in popular culture. We agreed that Dan Brown, the author of “The Da Vinci  Code,” has it wrong with his philosophy that art is a puzzle to be deciphered. But, McTavish said, this view has given a kind of entrée to art for a particular kind of nerd, a way to “figure it out” and feel masterful. “But it’s at odds with what I think about visual culture,” she said. “There are multiple nuances in art, things we can’t know, where we can’t retrieve the sources. That, to me, is appealing, but a lot of people find it frustrating.”

Nerd Nite, which seemed like a night journey into the beautifully dark and hipply decrepit lyceum, ended in a kind of nerd bacchanalia, where attendees were given creative tasks to perform, their cerebral aptitude judged by Jake Ward, editor-in-chief of Popular Science magazine, and four producers and presenters from Radiolab, a radio program produced by WNYC in New York and syndicated nationally by NPR … for nerds. These folks also judged a “Dry T-shirt” contest, something you don’t get at a TED Talk.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day and only got into one polite kerfuffle when I disparaged Richard Dawkins within earshot of someone. I found nerds to be open, friendly, and receptive people. And I wish every conference I attended was so thoroughly entertaining and educational. I agree with Wasowski’s somewhat whimsical assessment of this series of events, spawned from the threat of eviction from a Boston bar. “Nerd Nite,” he told me, “is a happy accident that came out of necessity, just like a lot of good ideas.”

Author: Lauren Wolf

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