Start your own Nerd Nite (now packing them in in Boston and NYC)
Nerds Just Wanna Have Fun
Nerds in New York and Boston are taking barroom banter to the next level
by Kurt Wong /Inkling Magazine
“And the olfactory bulb is Staten Island,” Madelaine Johnson quips. “I like how the olfactory bulb is Staten Island because it smells.” Groans and laughter erupt from the dimly lit Orchid Lounge in Manhattan’s East Village. Johnson, a neurobiologist from Columbia, nervously waves her laser pointer at a projected map of the New York subway system lying on its side. That’s how she wants me to picture the mouse brain: Brooklyn is the caudate putamen, Manhattan is the neocortex, and Staten Island is, as previously mentioned, the olfactory bulb. Welcome to Nerd Nite, New York style.
I first heard about Nerd Nite last spring at a parasitology conference in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “You gotta check it out,” a fellow attendee told me with a sparkle in her eye. “It’s doing so well in Boston, and I think they’re starting one in New York.”
The concept was simple enough: Get nerds together at a bar and watch nerds give PowerPoint presentations to other nerds while drinking beer. But in practice, can it avoid reinforcing the chess-club stereotype?
I logged onto their sparse website, typeset in clunky Courier font, unsure if I had stumbled upon ultimate dorkdom or pure nerd gold. The titles of past presentations proved it to be the latter: “Why you should care about worm poop: Compost, dead leaves, and the fate of the world” (Erica Quigley); “Tetrominowledge: How four blocks, arranged in different patterns, have changed the world, kind of” (Neil Janowitz); and perhaps most indicative of the no-nonsense nerdiness, “I VIBRATE TADPOLES” (Michael Caldwell).
But it was “Why studying ants is much cooler than whatever it is you do” (by Amy Mertl) that got me riled up. As a self-proclaimed lab rat with probably one too many Bunsen burner scars and repetitive stress injury from my incessant pipetting, I took Mertl’s title as a personal nerd-vs.-nerd challenge (“I’m nerdier than you, nya nya nya!”). I decided to take up the gauntlet. That’s how I found myself at the corner of Ave. A and 11th Street in New York’s East Village last November.
Nerd Nite started in Boston in 2003 when the bartenders at the Midway Café convinced one of their regulars, Chris Balakrishnan, to host an evening at the bar in order to explain once and for all where the hell he disappeared to every fall (turns out he was doing three-month stints in Cameroon to study the indigo bird for his doctoral research). And so the first Nerd Nite was born. Now Balakrishnan’s monthly speaker series packs the Midway with geeks and nerds from all walks of life.
Three years later, Balakrishnan coerced his good friend Matt Wasowski (a computer nerd by trade) to start Nerd Nite in New York. The crowd at Wasowski’s inaugural Nerd Nite in spring of 2006 comprised several regulars from the trivia night Wasowski emceed. When I went to my first one, in November, the crowd had grown to a comfortable 30 people.
But nerdiness loves company. By January’s Nerd Nite, held at the Orchid Lounge in the East Village, the audience had blossomed to more than 100. I arrived just in time for Wasowski’s introduction. As New York Nerd Nite’s “curator of nerds,” Wasowski fit the part perfectly with his awkward charm and schoolboy excitement. He engaged the assembly with his stand-up trivia routine (other crowds may scoff, but this audience ate up every word) before introducing the night’s lineup: camel spiders (as presented by Forest Ray, who became fascinated by these arthropods during his deployment in Iraq) and alien hand syndrome (thanks to Nancy Levy, who discovered an interest in crazy neurological syndromes through her NYU med-school classes). Despite the divergent subjects, the audience remained captivated by the wildly entertaining presentations. Images of camel-spider bites drew disgusted exclamations. Several people whooped for Levy’s simple utterance of the words “fusiform gyri.” Indeed, the nerds were out in full force.
The fact that everyone had come for the same reason (“the beer and brains,” Wasowski claimed) instilled a sense of community. Strangers whispered double entendres on the need for the male camel spider to stroke his mate, lest she bite his head off. The woman in front of me turned around to giggle over the comparison of prosopagnosia (or face blindness) to trying to recognize individual pebbles in a rock garden. It was the one time a month when people could revel in their nerdiness, whether they ended up presenting on a subject that intrigued them (whether they’re an expert or not) or just attended to feed their hungry brain cells.
Balakrishnan and Wasowski are keen on getting the word out, not just to residents of Beantown and the Big Apple, but to the whole world. “We want chapters throughout the country,” Wasowski spouted emphatically. “Nerds are everywhere and shall inherit the Earth.” And though it may sound like a lofty goal, consider the real brilliance behind the whole Nerd Nite concept: Only nerds really understand how cool something like this is. And the group’s self-selection (only the real nerds are proud to label themselves) should save Nerd Nite from going the way of other passing hipster trends. Once a nerd always a nerd.
9For more information about either Boston or New York Nerd Nites, go to nerdnite.com. Don’t hesitate to contact Chris Balakrishnan or Matt Wasowski for ready-made Nerd Nite starter kits.)