Nerd Nite SF is proof nerds know how to party. On the third Wednesday of every month nerds of all shapes and sizes gather together to listen to a few lectures and drink a bunch of booze. The crowd that gathers at the Rickshaw Stop on Fell St. in San Francisco is incredibly diverse and yet equally excited to throw back a few brews and learn a thing or two in the process.
Heavy red curtains line the walls and the faint hint of smoke from toasting grilled cheese sandwiches floats in the air. They sell Nerd Nite SF shirts (I have two) next to a booth dedicated to the San Francisco Public Library. My favorite part? Not only does Rickshaw have a full bar, they also have a cocktail of the night themed after one of the presentations. This last Nerd Nite featured a wonderful talk about absinthe, so the cocktail was “The Root of all Evil” – absinthe + root beer. 🍻
Nerd Nite began in Boston in 2003 and has since spread to 90 cities all over the globe. The city of San Francisco has Lucy Laird and Bart Bernhardt to thank for bringing the brainy shenanigans to the Bay Area. Not only is Bart co-founder of Nerd Nite SF, he is also the enthusiastic and hilarious host of the night! I was lucky enough to get the chance to chat with him about Nerd Nite SF’s beginnings, his favorite talks over the years, and how you can bring Nerd Nite to your city.
1) What is your role with Nerd Nite SF and how did you initially get involved?
We’re the co-organizers of NNSF, so we book & coach speakers, manage the venue & A/V, organize field trips, and all that jazz.
Several years ago, Chris Balakrishnan (the founder of Nerd Nite) and Matt Wasowski (head of the Nerd Nite network and NN NYC) went on a national tour and, like nerdy Johnny Appleseeds, wherever they went, little Nerd Nites sprung up in their wake!
In SF, they did their thing at Langton Labs, a really awesome artist/scientist/community living space, and god knows how many people were crammed into this sign-factory-turned-underground-community-center to hear lectures on ornithology, archaeology, and neurobiology. But there was also tons of drinking and laughing and zombies and heckling and me thinking why isn’t this a thing here? I love science and had been to many lecture events and science cafes, and none were as authentic, entertaining, and engaging as this.
I eventually connected with Matt about running a proper Nerd Nite. He introduced me to Lucy, and together we kicked off this little shindig. That was 5? 6? years ago? Something like that.
2) What makes someone a ‘nerd’, and why do you think San Francisco is such a great Nerd Nite city?
Many pixels have been shed over what’s a “nerd”, but I don’t really think too much about it. We’re very inclusive – if you love to learn and self-identify as a nerd for any reason whatsoever, or are even just “nerd-curious”, that’s good enough for us.
The short answer to why Nerd Nite thrives here is because it’s a city filled with young curious people who like to drink! Many are transplants and are looking to find their tribe, and it’s a good way to meet people (in fact, two folks who met at NNSF just got married!). There’s a much longer answer in the curious and wonderful evolution of the Bay Area over the past ~160 years that makes it a uniquely nerdy place.
3) What do you do when you’re not planning for the third Wednesday of the month?
I am involved in innumerable projects and consulting gigs, mostly advertising and data-related. Lucy is the operations director for the SF Silent Film Festival and consultant on all things film exhibition-related.
4) Nerd Nite blends science, comedy, research, and performance… yet it’s accessible and lets be honest, a little boozy. How does Nerd Nite walk the line between informative and fun?
It’s surprisingly easy. We tell speaker candidates that, you know, we’re in a bar and we give you lots of free beer. We want you to have a ton of fun and make jokes and you can even swear if you like, but you also need to be deeply educational. And most people just get that and run with it, especially if they’ve been to a Nerd Nite before. It’s pretty rare that we have to step in and say “You should increase/decrease the depth of this talk” or “crank up the fun”. It happens, but not often. It turns out nerds are often very enthusiastic about their expertise and also like to have fun.
5) You schedule such a wide variety of speakers – what are your guidelines for picking a specific talk?
The benefit of running your own lecture series is that you get to book whatever sounds interesting to you! So that’s a pretty big bias.
Beyond that, we really do try to curate a wide range of topics, presentation styles, genders, depth, and whatnot. I particularly like finding “surprising complexity” presentations – these are talks that take something you think you understand as being simple, if you even think about it at all, but under the tutelage of an expert a fascinating complicated world is revealed. Similarly, I love talks that take a fairly known topic, but approach it from an unexpected angle. I love that stuff.
6) You have seen a lot of interesting talks and colorful characters – what are a few of your favorites?
Oh, wow. So many, and for so many different reasons. From kicking it with an actual #&$@%!ing Apollo 9 astronaut, to science raps that brought down the house, to heavy metal riffs on a homemade lute, to the most endearing ode to the Martian magnetosphere, we have a huge range of favorites. Of the more recent ones, I can think of:
Two months ago, Brendan Rogers came on stage to talk about labor abuse in the fishing industry, and he kicks it off by saying he was a homeless teenager on the streets of SF who needed structure, and that’s why he went into the Coast Guard and worked on ships in the South Pacific, and that’s how he became aware of this issue. And I’m like, holy shit, this guy is legit. I really appreciated that.
Michelle Trautwein from the California Academy of Sciences was talking about face mites, and the sampling methodology they used in a study. And there’s a moment where she’s cracking up, and the audience is laughing, and we’re talking about methodology and I couldn’t be happier. She later said that was the most fun she’s ever had doing science outreach, which is just about the nicest thing anyone could say to us.
Self-described “monsterologist” Brian Engh came on stage in hoodie and saggy pants and grabbed the mic like a rapper — because he is — and proceeded to slay the audience with the phylogenetic trees of dinosaurs and the process he went through to create a realistic representation of a newly published dinosaur fossil in partnership with the paleontologist discoverers.
7) How can someone bring Nerd Nite to their town? If there isn’t one already scheduled?
Contact an existing Nerd Nite boss! I assure you we don’t make much money on this, we do it because we love learning and being part of a joyous community. We’re happy to help you spread the nerdlove, so please reach out and we’ll walk you through what it takes.
Nerd Nite SF is the third Wednesday of every month and it costs just $8 if you get your ticked in advance online! You have a small chance of getting in at the door the night of, but Nerd Nite often sells out, so plan ahead 😎