Kate McCobb organizes the club Poetry for Scientists.
nerd (noun): An unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person, especially one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits. (via Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
In my adulthood, I've become a nerd-lover. It's a strange development for me. I didn't exactly grow up thinking I'd want a boyfriend who studies TCP IP protocol in his spare time; and if we were on “Family Feud,” probably “nerdiness” wouldn't be on the Top 10 list of qualities that people consider unbearably sexy in someone else.
But that might be because the originators of the above definition of "nerd" haven't met a different kind of modern-day nerd - the cross-disciplinary nerd who pursues literature alongside neuroscience, or the nerd who has a deep interest in social phenomena and a vast understanding of systems, thus producing a potential to draw connections and metaphors between scientific theory and human behavior. The nerd who attempts an explanation of love by studying the sea, for example; who analyzes human civilization in the contexts offered by astronomy or geology; who addresses global crises with interactive games built around knowledge of human psychology. In short, the socially adept, attractive, dare I say?, smokin' hot nerd.
To be general, the essence of a nerd's lovability lies in an insatiable curiosity about things that regular people don't think about. Nerds are the ones who hop onto MIT OpenCourseWare to take a class whenever they encounter a novel theory that they don't know. While the rest of us non-nerds bumble around using smart phones and WiFi that are made possible, for all we know, by magic elf-fairies, nerds are constantly attempting to understand - and sometimes to hack or subvert, just for fun - the networks that power everything we take for granted.
And as hacker spaces multiply around the world, as we turn to the Genius Bar every time our Apple products go haywire and as sustainability becomes an increasingly (and ironically) tech-driven effort, it's becoming clear that nerds rule - literally.
This past week, I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural public event of a student club at Mills College called Poetry for Scientists. The club's eloquently-stated mission reads, in part, as follows:
“Our purpose is to integrate art and science, and to employ the various techniques utilized in poetry and creative writing to create compelling works of nonfiction that the reader can both relate to and learn from. It is to discover the multitude points of intersection between various, seemingly unrelated, subject matters and to show where they overlap and also at what point they diverge.”
The club is open to the public, with the only requirement being that one wants to write creative nonfiction and is committed to regular attendance of weekly meetings. Membership is diverse; among the current Mills student members, the club includes representation from departments as disparate as Math, Ecology, Philosophy and Biology. Funnily enough, though, no English majors yet.
“An English professor was saying that the English department needs to get outside of the English department,” said Mills student Kate McCobb, 32, who founded the club last semester. “It would be great if we got some English majors who were like, 'You know what, I need to do a whole bunch of research because I don't know anything about osmosis, and I want to learn about osmosis because I want to do a creative writing project about it.'”
McCobb herself is currently in the midst of writing a long, research-heavy creative nonfiction piece about Death Valley. It was this piece, in fact, that inspired the creation of Poetry for Scientists. After McCobb shared an in-progress excerpt of the piece with some friends, one of her friends present - Joshua Downer, a Ph.D student in neuroscience at University of California, Davis - encouraged her to create a poetry club for scientists. He even helped her initially start the club, pointing out that there are lots of science classes geared towards humanities majors, but not vice versa.
Currently, McCobb is a Philosophy and Math double major. She was conflicted for a long time about whether she wanted to academically pursue creative writing or science and math. Having made her decision, she missed having space to do creative writing and often inadvertently found poetry in her scientific studies.
“I would read my chemistry textbook and feel sort of shocked at the ways electrons interact and how much that reminds me of the way humans relate to one another,” McCobb said. “That's the most accessible metaphor you can come up with, with hard science as a creative nonfiction thing. It just doesn't really get any easier than that.”
In accordance with the multi-disciplinary approach, each weekly club meeting opens with a quick, free write on such prompts as displacement, inertia, hypertrophy/atrophy, resonance and friction. Meeting time is then spent sharing, critiquing and offering general support around each others' current or ongoing creative writing projects. (Many of the members' unedited free writes are shared on Poetry for Scientists' blog.)
Poetry for Scientists just rounded out its first semester of existence. To celebrate, they organized a well-attended event at the Mills College Student Union last Friday that showcased members reading their work out loud, interspersed with guest musicians. The event, “A Tendency to Oscillate,” was advertised across campus with a striking poster that featured an image of the cosmos and the following passage from poet and artist Mary Ruelfe:
"Right after the big bang, particles of matter and particles of antimatter annihilated each other. But for every billion pairs of particles, there is one extra particle of matter. That tiny imbalance accounts for the existence of poetry, that is, the existence of the observed universe.
“A poem is a neutrino - mainly nothing - it has no mass and can pass through the earth undetected."
And then there's Nerd Nite East Bay.
An event that currently takes place on the last Monday of every month at the New Parkway Theater, the most recent Nerd Nite happened this past Monday, and attracts a predictably nerdy, science-enthusiastic crowd.
If I had needed any indication that I was in the right place, I got it when the attendee sitting next to me began chatting with her friend about micro-biomes, which then quickly developed into an animated discussion about bedbugs.
Thanks to this most recent seventh installation of Nerd Nite East Bay, themed “Airships, Bridge and Cartography,” I learned the following things:
Nerd Nite East Bay is the Oakland-based incarnation of a Nerd Nite phenomenon that is held in more than 50 cities around the world. It adheres to the format followed by all Nerd Nites: a monthly event wherein three invited speakers each give 18- to 21-minute-long presentations about nerdy topics while audience members freely imbibe beer. Nerd Nite describes itself succinctly: “It's like the Discovery Channel ... with beer!”
Rick Karnesky, a scientist at Sandia National Labs and host of a KALX radio show called “Spectrum,” started the East Bay chapter of Nerd Nite last October to coincide with the Bay Area Science Festival. At the time, Nerd Nite SF had been going strong for nearly three years, with attendance of 250-plus people every month. According to Karnesky, the Nerd Nite SF founders were regularly approached by people who were interested in starting Nerd Nite chapters in other parts of the Bay Area, but Nerd Nite SF wanted to see a good fit before giving their blessing.
“Since I was a Nerd Nite super-fan and had given a Nerd Nite talk and had a science-based radio show, they thought I fit,” Karnesky said.
Karnesky then found a co-host in Rebecca Cohen, who has a Master's degree not in a science-related field, but rather in cinema. As Karnesky remembers it, “Lucy [Laird, one of the organizers of Nerd Nite SF] sent me an email saying, 'I have this great candidate for you. She's, first of all, a woman, so she's gonna get a slightly different slant that way. She's also NOT a science geek, she draws web comics that are super awesome and she's probably underemployed right now so can devote tons of time.'” So that was that.
Cohen said that the drive behind starting a Nerd Nite East Bay chapter was an appreciation for hyper-local nerdiness.
“The wealth of talent and knowledge and expertise available in the East Bay is just astounding,” she said. “I was already a big fan of Nerd Nite San Francisco, but realizing that we could pull off a really amazing Nerd Nite just based on the talent we have here [in the East Bay] - it's hard to resist the temptation to want to do that.”
Indeed, the roster of East Bay science and tech hubs includes Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and Lawrence Berkeley Hall of Science; Lawrence Livermore National Lab; University of California, Berkeley; Sandia National Labs; Chabot Space and Science Center; Oakland Museum of California; Oakland Zoo and Pixar. And to further deepen the available pool of expertise, many of Nerd Nite's speakers are not associated with any of these institutions at all, but are instead laypeople with a deep personal interest in ... well, off-the-beaten-path topics.
Past speakers have given presentations about competitive Rock Paper Scissors (fittingly enough, that one was presented by a geologist known as “The Rock Doctor”), the War of 1812 (“America's stupidest war”) and audiovisual systems (“Be warned! You may be up all night rearranging your living room”).
The popularity of Nerd Nite East Bay has been explosive, with a regularly sold-out crowd of at least 200 attendees at each event. It's gotten so popular that it occupies both theaters at the New Parkway - one theater hosts the live presentation, while the other theater holds the spillover crowd with a live video feed of what's going on in the next room.
I compared the Nerd Nite experience to a mini TED conference, but according to Karnesky, “Where we differ from TED is in irreverence. We'll get extremely offbeat talks, the speakers will dress down, they'll drink a beer onstage, they'll crack a few penis jokes. The other thing is that we're every month. Our price point is $8, so hopefully people aren't breaking the bank to come out here.”
Basically, you could call it a show of the nerds, by the nerds, for the nerds.
If You Go
Poetry for Scientists
Kate McCobb is currently organizing a weekly summertime meeting for Poetry for Scientists. To become a member or find out more information, contact McCobb at firstname.lastname@example.org. Updates and free writes can be found at poetryforscientists.blogspot.com.
Nerd Nite East Bay
When: 8 p.m. the last Monday of each month - Nerd Nite East Bay #8 is on Monday, May 27
Where: The New Parkway Theater, 474 24th St., Oakland
More info: eastbay.nerdnite.com
Oakland Social is a weekly arts and culture column devoted to upcoming events, new places, and narratives about going out in Oakland. Have ideas for what to cover? Contact email@example.com.