Casual learning over
beers at Nerd Nite


Zombies always point their tangent vectors toward their targets. Because they do so, I can calculate how much faster I need to run to avoid being eaten. I learned this zombie apocalypse survival tip and other surprising facts at Nerd Nite in Washington, D.C.

Nerd Nites can be found in more than 80 cities around the world. At these events, enthusiasts give 20-minute presentations on whatever topics inspire them. The D.C. Nerd Nite hosted Halloween-themed talks in October: the charmingly macabre world of illustrator and writer Edward Gorey, the 10 most bizarre mammals and how calculus can be used to fight zombies. Nerd Nites are held in bars, theaters and art spaces: It’s learning over drinks.

The Nerd Nite event I attended could have been a local music show. The spotlights focused on the presenters on the stage, and the audience stood in the dim, blue-pink lighting. The bar in the back was never still, and indie music played overhead in between the presentations. TV screens were mounted throughout the venue so the audience in the back stood in different directions to see the slides instead of aligning toward the main stage. The crowd was supportive and receptive, following the two rules of Nerd Nite: “Please stay quiet(ish) during the presentations” and “Nerds get funnier with more drinks.”

The presenters shared a passion for sharing their passions. Sara Nemati, a high-school biology and physical science teacher in Montgomery County, Md., who talked about bizarre mammals, says, “I’ve always wanted to present, because I feel like I have the enthusiasm for science that I can share.” Colin Adams, a mathematics professor at Williams College in Massachusetts, spoke about using calculus to fight zombies. Always thinking about “interesting ways to get people to listen to really beautiful mathematics long enough to understand how beautiful it is” and a fan of zombie shows and movies, he saw the “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and was inspired to combine zombies and calculus.

The attendees were a mix of those who had gone to previous Nerd Nites and loved them and friends they brought to experience it for the first time. The people I talked to were involved in science in some way. I met several who worked in science policy, and the presenters and organizers were researchers, educators and outreach professionals. But everyone enjoyed enriching themselves and came out because a presentation piqued their interest and they wanted to hear more.

Nerd Nite offers a refreshing alternative to current social outings. “I work on educating science and tech, and there are not a lot of places where you can play with it and have fun with the material,” says Cat Aboudara, the organizer of Nerd Nite in D.C. “I really like how this is a place where you can be excited about science and tech and history and it’s still playful. It elicits conversation and laughter, and people being inspired and wanting to find out more.”

Nerd Nite started in 2004 with an evolutionary biology Ph.D. student at Boston University, Chris Balakrishnan, and the Midway, the bar he frequented. Balakrishan studied the parasitic indigobird and conducted field research each fall in Cameroon. After being in the field for several months, he would return to the bar and regale the bartenders and patrons with his exploits. At one point, Matt Wasowski, the main organizer of Nerd Nite, recounts, the bartenders said, “Chris, we’re sick of hearing you tell the same stories over and over again about the birds. Can you just get it over with in one fell swoop?” Balakrishnan recruited his colleagues to present their research at the bar, and Nerd Nite formed.

“Nerd Nite’s overall goal is to make people slightly smarter for one night,” Wasowski writes in an email, “and slightly drunker as well.” Getting involved is simple: Attend a Nerd Nite and volunteer to present by submitting your contact information.

Maggie Kuo Maggie Kuo (mkuo@asbmb.org) is an intern at ASBMB Today and a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University.