The first Nerd Nite was held in Boston in 2003. Chris Balakrishnan C’97 used to hang out at a bar, the Midway Café in the Jamaica Plains section. He was earning his PhD in biology at Boston University and often took trips to Cameroon to study the evolution of birds.

“I’d disappear from the scene for three months at a time every year,” explains Balakrishnan from his current home base in Illinois, where he is doing post-doctoral work. “They’d be curious about what I did, the owners and the bartender. One owner said I should give a slide show at the bar. So you can imagine, it’s kind of a dive bar, and they have a stage, so usually there are kind of terrible bands, noisy rock and roll. I went home and I thought, ‘I could get people to tell about the weird things they do with [their] lives.’”

Balakrishnan—who is listed on the group’s website as “Nerd Nite guru”— set up the first Nerd Nite. He expected only a few of his graduate school friends to come out.

“I was like a nervous teenager who tried to have a party,” he says. “I wasn’t sure anyone would show up. We got a good crowd. Probably around 30 people showed up the first night. The bartenders and audience members felt comfortable asking questions, cracking jokes, heckling. We try to keep that going at all the Nerd Nites now, really casual and light-hearted and funny.”

In fact, there is an element of low culture in the Nerd Nites, with the presenters and audience members often invoking either excrement or sex in otherwise scholarly presentations. The most popular subjects have mixed high and low culture, like the history of the world as seen through barbecuing, or the sociology of sex robots. Animal sex is a frequent theme.

“My presentation was on indigobirds, which is one word, and they’re an unusual kind of bird,” says Balakrishnan. “They’re known as brood parasites, so instead of raising their own, birds lay eggs in the nest of another bird and the other bird raises them.”

Nerd Nites began running monthly in Boston. Balakrishnan knew Wasowski from Penn and encouraged him to bring Nerd Nite to New York, where Wasowski had been running team trivia nights since 2001.

Bar trivia, in fact, is the likely father of Nerd Nite—perhaps the first hint that young professionals wanted to do something in a social setting besides drink and strike out with the opposite sex. “Quiz nights” began at pubs in the United Kingdom and exploded in bars in Philly in the late 1990s, drawing players from the colleges nearby. Penn students could play in a different bar almost every night.

The practice was a bit slow to catch on in New York; there were only a few such nights when The New York Times wrote about the trend in 2001. In 2000, Wasowski, who had come to New York from Philly a year earlier to work for an educational software company, brought trivia to a bar on the Upper West Side.

Over the next few years, he also visited Balakrishnan and attended the Boston Nerd Nite, but thought, “No one in New York would ever go to this.” The nights in Boston were scientific, fueled largely by graduate students. But Balakrishnan kept trying to convince Wasowski. So Wasowski debuted the New York version in 2006, and added side attractions like speed dating and jugglers.

Since then, Wasowski—who also holds the title “big boss”—has trained a cadre of fellow “nerd bosses” who have taken the event to cities around the globe, using an “official Nerd Nite starter kit.”

Though he ranked seventh in his class of more than 700 at Lakewood High School near Cleveland and was president of the National Honor Society, Wasowski didn’t get bullied in school due to his smarts—unlike some of the other Nerd Nite fans.

“I always thought Matt was cool,” says George Pasles C’97, who reveals that he was beaten up on the bus as a kid because he spent his quality time with computers, and who has frequently attended the New York Nerd Nites since the premiere in March 2006.

The idea quickly got noticed by local publications and gained a big enough following to outgrow its first home in the East Village. Wasowski moved it to Galapagos, a large art space among the brick-lined waterfront streets of the artsy Brooklyn neighborhood known as DUMBO, short for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. The monthly event began selling out, with 300 people buying $10 tickets to see three slide shows and socialize.

Besides infographics, presentations have focused on the iconography in Michael Jackson videos, hunger and obesity in Harlem (that one by JC Dwyer C’00, who works in policy for the Texas Food Bank Network and also runs Nerd Nite Austin), and something called “sexual robotics” that became an instant classic—at least as far as Pasles was concerned.

After this presentation, in which NYU medical anthropology scholar Laura Duncan touched on items such as “drilldos” and women’s health, Pasles was intrigued. In true nerd fashion, he emailed her in the middle of the night and expected not to hear back. Two years later, they live together.

“She asked me out,” Pasles maintains.

Of the propensity for sex and scatology in otherwise intellectual presentations, Wasowski says, “Sex is popular with everyone. In scientific terms, you can say ‘procreate’ and ‘masturbate’ with more of a straight face. We’ve had cephalopod sex presentations. Fish and birds. Insects. Name the species and there has probably been a presentation about it having sex.”

He also noted that in New York, people are “notorious for having four-second attention spans,” so a base topic certainly piques one’s interest.

But perhaps there’s something more at work. Joking about sex or toilet habits is a way to show that you’ve grown out of your awkward adolescent shell.

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Nerds gone meta: Matt Wasowski tells how Nerd Nite began … at Nerd Nite.


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