Lucy Laird C’96 runs the nights in San Francisco, where they debuted in 2009. Attendees pay an $8 cover charge. They have lured 150 to 350 people per night.

“It was just really awesome and it had a great vibe and so many people showed up,” Laird says of her first Nerd Nite. “We’ve had so many good presenters. A guy last year was a specialist on the atmosphere of Mars. He was very nerdy and sits in an office all day, looking at numbers. But he was just hilarious on stage. He had a great sense of humor but deep, deep nerdiness, and he was able to draw the crowd into that.”

Michael Nierenberg C’05 actually had no idea that the Nerd Nite concept came from Penn grads when he gave a presentation on predicting mortgage performance last February (he learned about the event from a non-Penn alum co-worker at his financial firm). He says that San Francisco is the perfect place for Nerd Nite because so many people are in technology and academic fields.

“Even if they’re not a nerd, they’re nerd-curious,” he says, without a hint of irony.



Author and commentator Stefan Fatsis C’85 says the popularity of Nerd Nite is a sign of changing times and changing technology.

He gave a presentation at Nerd Nite DC in 2010 about the history and culture of Scrabble, which was also the topic of his best-selling nonfiction book about competitive Scrabble, Word Freak, which came out in 2001 and was republished in its 10th edition this year [“Man of Letters,” Sept|Oct 2001].

“It seems to me there is a natural curiosity that a lot of media don’t satisfy, to be able to listen to interesting people who have eclectic passions talk intelligently with a sense of humor in a collectivist setting,” Fatsis says. “I think that’s incredibly appealing to a culture that can marginalize and discount and make fun of unusual interests. And it’s fun to get together in a cool environment and have a beer and just learn about something you didn’t know about.

“It’s not just journalists. It’s actually people who are in these worlds. It’s a wonderful reminder of how diverse and colorful life is outside of our own little bubbles,” he adds. “We are more willing to learn about something we wouldn’t have considered in the pre-digital age. We’re more open to this vast trough of ideas and information we can access instantly now. Maybe what Nerd Nite does is take people who have become accustomed to seeing and reading and learning about disparate subjects and bring them together in a physical place.”

Jane Willenbring, an assistant professor of earth and environmental science at Penn—who says she was picked on in school in North Dakota because “I was a good student … and I also had odd teeth.”—presented at Philadelphia Nerd Nite in October. “What I did definitely notice was it was a packed house. I couldn’t believe there were so many kindred spirits out there,” she recalls. “I was talking about how we can use the past, like the geologic record, to figure out future warming scenarios that would affect the East Antarctic ice sheet.”

Willenbring says the meaning of nerd has definitely shifted. “I think that it refers to people who really get into one specific topic quite a bit, and other things take a back seat. Steve Jobs could be considered a nerd, but in the last 10 years or something like that, people have just started to value getting into one specific line of work,” she says. “I don’t really know what constitutes a nerd, but it seems like you get so into something that you let other parts of your life sort of flounder. People don’t dress very well or they have odd [habits] because they don’t care about certain parts of their life. But that’s more acceptable nowadays, that you don’t have to have everything together if you are attached or motivated to work on one specific thing.”


 


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