New York geeks revel in uncoolness at "Nerd Nite"

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Matt Wasowski calls it “the Discovery Channel with beer,” a night when nerds can get together to share their passions in a social setting.

A group assembles for Nerd Nite at the Angels and Kings bar in Manhattan, June 7, 2007. The event, which blends elements of stand-up comedy and traditional lecture, is one of a slew of "nerd" or science-focused events cropping up in New York, according to event listing Web site REUTERS/Eva Roca/Handout

Wasowski, 32, runs Nerd Nite, a monthly event in New York where up to 100 people meet in a bar for an evening of zany PowerPoint presentations on topics like alien hand syndrome, a rare neurological condition where a sufferer’s hand seems to take on a mind of its own.

“Now you can drink and get more smarter!” Wasowski joked in an e-mail highlighting this month’s event which began with a tour of food consumed in competitive eating contests, such as hot dogs (59.5 in 12 minutes is the record) and cow brains (17.7 pounds in 15 minutes).

“Everyone here is overeducated,” Wasowski told Reuters, adding that Nerd Nite was a “more interesting way to go out.”

The event, which blends elements of stand-up comedy and traditional lecture, is one of a slew of “nerd” or science-focused events cropping up in New York, according to event listing Web site

“There’s a certain nostalgia value to it,” said Neil Janowitz, 25, a magazine editor. “It’s cool to go with a friend or two and sit back and have that kind of educational atmosphere again.”

In February, Janowitz gave a Nerd Nite presentation on the creation and evolution of the video-game Tetris.

Graphic designer Matthew King, 26, this month offered a slide-show on mental asylums with pictures of old practices for restraining patients, including a gruesome contraption called a “whirly chair,” an early predecessor to the straitjacket.

The next event highlight? “Thumb-splitting shrimp,” said Wasowski, referring to a kind of shellfish in southeast Asia famous for chopping off the thumbs of fishermen.


Nerd Nite is the brainchild of Chris Balakrishnan, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University who started the event in Boston in 2003. Wasowski, who works for a company that makes voice and video software for online college courses, started his own chapter last spring.

“People just want to learn in a fun environment,” said Balakrishnan, 31, an evolutionary biologist.

“Someone recently told me that people of our generation are having more trouble growing up than other generations. Trying to stay hip longer, not getting married, eternally educating themselves in new things, so perhaps that’s the sociology behind it.”

Balakrishnan’s Boston Nerd Nite has recently held talks like “Zombies are Real: Actual Zombies of the Natural World and Why You Might Be One,” and “Nerd, Dork and Geek: Etymology and Suggestions for Proper Usage.”

So what kind of person goes to Nerd Nite?

“There are different kinds of nerds,” Wasowski told a recent audience. “There are insane asylum nerds and lawyer nerds and hardware nerds. There are also sports nerds. So we try not to discriminate. That’s important to all of you, all of you discriminating nerds.”

Oddly enough, much of the 20- and 30-something crowd at the event seemed more like wannabe geeks than classic nerds.

“I don’t expect everyone to have their glasses taped in the middle and protractors in their front pockets,” said Dennis McLynn, 37, manager of Angels and Kings, the East Village bar that hosts the event.

Nerd Nite’s regulars seem “like they’d be nerdy, but you could tell they party,” said McLynn.