At DC9, nerds are no outcasts
By Fritz Hahn
January 22, 2010
Let's face it: Washington is a city of nerds. According to the Census Bureau, Washington has the highest percentage of any city -- or state -- of residents with advanced degrees. In 2006, 47.2 percent of residents had a bachelor's degree -- almost 20 points higher than the national average.
All this breeds a culture where eggheads are celebrated for their knowledge of arcane policy or skill with statistics, not ostracized for their smarts. This even extends to bars: Dorks wearing Buddy Holly glasses don't risk having their heads flushed in the toilet by the punks at the Black Cat. And, in fact, there are places where nerd-dom is celebrated. Like DC9 this Saturday, when the night's activities will include not just drinking beer and listening to bands but also contemplating the awesome power of volcanoes and watching brain images projected by a doctoral candidate who contends there is no such thing as "normal."
Welcome to the monthly Nerd Nite, where nerds can share their passions and unusual research with a room full of people eager to spend a weekend night in a bar learning.
Last month's inaugural Nerd Nite filled DC9 to its 200-person capacity and left a line of disappointed nerds who missed out on PowerPoints on the sex lives of insects, the secrets of competitive Scrabble players and the biomechanics of the little-known mantis shrimp, which attack with the force of a .22-caliber bullet.
Lisa Mangus and Corey Schmidt, two 28-year-old veterinarians, drove from upper Montgomery County to catch Nerd Nite. "It's a very good concept," Mangus explains. "You can drink and be enlightened at the same time."
So do they consider themselves nerds?
"We're here on a Saturday night," Schmidt offers.
"We heard 'insect sex' and thought, 'That sounds really cool,' " Mangus says.
"I think people are fascinated by weird stuff," Schmidt says.
The crowd sniggers throughout Jenna Jadin's double entendre-laced talk on "Doing It Buggy Style: The fascinating and brutal sex lives of insects," which is illustrated with slides and videos projected on screens throughout the club. They question author (and "All Things Considered" contributor) Stefan Fatsis about the highest-scoring Scrabble word he has ever played ("Passover," with two triple word scores, for a total of 167 points). They gasp in disbelief at videos of mantis shrimp attacking crabs and other sea creatures, which are shown in full speed and slow motion.
Between the 30-minute talks, a local band plays and the beer continues to flow.
Nerd Nite was born in a Boston bar in 2003 when Chris Balakrishnan, a doctoral fellow at Harvard, spent so much time at his local watering hole talking about his research into the parasitic finches of Cameroon that the bartenders asked him to give a presentation on it for his friends, hoping he'd just get it over with. Now there are Nerd Nites in New York, Austin, Munich and here. All the presentations are done by volunteers who are eager to share their knowledge. No advanced degrees are required, just a passion for the subject matter. (If you're interested in presenting at a future event, just corner one of the Nerd Nite hosts at DC9 or check out the Web site.) After the last slide had been shown at December's event, Jason Wang, Lisa Hyland and their friends were getting beers and chatting. "The Scrabble [presentation] was the best," Hyland says. "We came out because of Stefan Fatsis; it was name recognition."
"I was really keen on the shrimp," adds Wang, who works for the Department of Defense.
While not everyone attending was willing to own up to nerd-dom, the reviews were mostly positive. "I liked that it wasn't a typical venue where people could just hang out," says Amanda Lahan, an account manager at a strategic communications company. "And people like the idea of mixing science and alcohol in a non-lecture setting."
Not all presentations will be science-related, says D.C. Nerd Nite founder Rebecca Blank. In February, Nevin Martell, the author of "Looking for Calvin and Hobbes," will be giving a presentation about Bill Watterson's classic comic strip.
Tickets can be purchased in advance through www.dcnine.com, and it's a good idea to guarantee your spot. Also, presentations take place upstairs in DC9's concert space but will also be shown on closed-circuit in the downstairs bar. If you want to see the presentations in person, arrive early. Doors open at 6 p.m.