Late on the third Wednesday of every month a line forms down the block outside Rickshaw Stop. This little club, tucked between the Music Conservatory and Symphony Hall, is usually home to indie bands, rocking urban core and new web music styles, but one night a month the nerds come out to play.
At Nerd Nite #31 — last Wednesday, January 16 — the crowd pushed into the bar with ID’s checked, wrists stamped and the custom Nerd Nite-only crossword puzzle in hand. The smell of the grilled cheese vendor, stationed across from the bar, filled the air. By 7:30 all the seats were full and the floor space was filling up with curious nerds. These people are here for Nerd Nite SF, a once-monthly lecture event that features talks on everything from the science of memory and the life cycle of bugs to the history of modern sewage systems and the art of crosswords.
The word nerd, especially now, spans a wide range of pursuits and has come to mean people being unabashedly passionate about their favorite subjects. The wide adoption and reclamation of the word definitely fostered a diverse crowd on this evening. There were skinny jeans and beards sitting next to fashion-phobes, and the San Francisco uniform, t-shirt and jeans, abounded. Instead of instruments, the high wooden stage was set with a lectern and a projection screen.
The self-labeled language nerd, Luke Swartz, a Stanford alumn and current Googler, gave the first lecture: “Shibboleths, or How Not to Get Killed for Saying the Wrong Thing.” Swartz explained that Shibboleths are words used to determine if someone is from a certain group. He used an example from the movie Inglourious Basterds, in which a British spy, impersonating a German officer, uses the English and not German hand symbol for three. The Germans know immediately that he is not one of them. Shibboleths can be words or customs that label their users as fellow group members, like the custom of male circumcision.
The second lecture, “Dark Energy and the Fate of the Universe” was given by cosmologist Debbie Bard, a postdoc at KIPAC, Stanford’s Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology. She spoke engagingly about the great mysteries left in astrophysics, specifically how little we know about dark energy, the force propelling the expansion of the universe. She described the myriad of ways physics theorizes the end of everything, including the big rip, big crunch, big freeze, and big bounce.
The talks were funny and engaging to an interested and friendly crowd. No one heckled and intelligent questions were asked. Communal filling in of the custom crossword was popular. It was simple and really fun, a break from the Internet and a chance to nerd out in public. Get there early before the chairs and grilled cheese run out.
The next Nerd Nite is February 20. For more information and to register for updates, visit sf.nerdnite.com.