Secret Science Club
Continuing Education, at the Bar
By Jennifer Schuessler
New York Times
January 5, 2012
FOR many, January means back to the lecture hall, and not just at colleges and universities. Across New York the backrooms of bars and the main stages of clubs are coming to resemble secret annexes to the Learning Annex — homes to a boom in alternative lecture series that combine the spirit of the seminar room with the atmosphere of speed dating.
Sometimes the matchmaking is purely intellectual, as speakers bring evolutionary biology or astrophysics to first-timers who thought they had just come for the beer. Other times it’s of the more literal kind (though sorry, ladies, the sex ratio doesn’t seem to be any better in nerd circles).
Whether it’s credentialed neuroscientists delivering a solid happy hour on the mysteries of the brain or tag teams of amateurs competing to give the best 15-minute PowerPoint on cephalopod sex or fake alphabets, never has New York (or Brooklyn, anyway) offered so many opportunities to get smart while also getting a bit stupid. Here’s a survey of some offbeat lecture series that let the intellectually curious go back to school, without the homework.
Secret Science Club
Quick-freezing demonstrations onstage and straight-up theme cocktails at the bar are the order of the evening at the Secret Science Club, a five-year-old lecture series that draws overflow crowds to its monthly meetings at the Bell House in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
Competition for bicycle parking can be fierce, as is the scramble just to get in the door of the 400-capacity club to hear top-flight speakers like the New York University astrophysicist David Hogg, who begins this year’s season on Jan. 18.
For regulars like Mike Garbarino, 42, a self-described “educated layperson” from Yonkers who boasts of having attended every session except the one given the day his father died, the club is a social night out as well as an act of cultural dissidence.
“It got started in 2006, which was the height of national stupidity,” Mr. Garbarino said at a recent event. “This was pushback. People were sick of being dumb.”
Margaret Mittelbach, a writer and editor who started the Secret Science Club with Michael Crewdson and Dorian Devins, said it was important to keep the barriers to the audience as low as the qualifications of the speakers are high.
“People may not know how interested they are until they come,” Ms. Mittelbach said. “That’s why we keep it free. People don’t have anything to lose.”
Lecturers — three of whom have been Nobel Prize winners — hardly skimp on the substance, though they do tend to be mindful that the audience, unlike students in their 10 a.m. class, may be at least one sheet to the wind.
“I could talk to you for 25 minutes about the morphology of a particular foot bone, but that wouldn’t be particularly fair,” William Harcourt-Smith, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, said during a standing-room lecture in November.
Instead, Dr. Harcourt-Smith flashed a “slightly kinky” slide of a chimp holding up a silver stiletto with its feet before offering to buy that evening’s special cocktail, the Fossil Evidence, for anyone who could guess the name of a certain bone.
“You get half a drink,” he said after someone shouted out a half-correct answer.
The speakers are paid only in beer and applause. Most talk for about 45 minutes, though the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, inaugurated the series’s move to the Bell House in 2009 from the smaller Union Hall in Park Slope by going a full two hours.
“He’s famous for being the Bruce Springsteen of science lecturers,” Ms. Mittelbach said. “It was a lengthy, meaty show.”
A more literal kind of meat is featured in December at the club’s annual Carnivorous Nights taxidermy contest, a raucous festival of applied zoology. At last month’s sold-out edition, the judges considered some 30 entries, including a “Pietà”-like mounting of a pygmy South American sloth and her baby, a diorama dramatizing the death of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith (represented by a beetle), and a Christmas tree trimmed with small-mammal hindquarters.
The occasional footnote about exotic chicken genetics aside, the taxidermy event was longer on gonzo creativity than real natural history. But for some, it’s a gateway drug to the club’s more serious offerings.
“It’s fun to come and get a small piece of how the world works,” said Nadia Siddiqui, 30, a worker for a human-rights organization who came for the taxidermy a few years ago but has since returned for a half-dozen lectures, including one on animal swarming behavior, her favorite so far.
“I’m a nerd,” she added. “I like these things.”
Nerdiness is elevated to a full-fledged badge of identity at Nerd Nite, a monthly lecture series that has been packing Galapagos Art Space in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn since 2008. Its date-night crowd goes to party to the mantra “Be there and be square,” projected on screen before each event underneath a line drawing of stylishly geeky spectacles.
If Secret Science Club is all about bringing the best scientific minds of New York to the people, Nerd Nite is all about celebrating the expertise of amateurs, the goofier and poppier the better.
“We like zombies,” said Malcolm McDonald, 32, a computer programmer, when asked to explain what drew him and his girlfriend to the November edition, which featured talks on bad trips in travel literature, the romantic psychology of “Twilight” and “nonballistic” methods for fighting off the undead.
“That, and the fact that it’s nerdy, I guess,” added his girlfriend, Lisa Yau, 29, who works in retail analytics and met Mr. McDonald on Match.com after he noticed her claim to have memorized pi to 50 digits. “We self-identify as nerds a little bit.”
That sense of shared identity has fueled the growth of Nerd Nite from a homespun event in a Boston bar to a meticulously branded global enterprise, with offshoots in more than 30 cities worldwide, regular speed-dating events, and a magazine, to be introduced on Friday night at a special event featuring talks on “The Rise and Fall of the Atari Empire” and the history of the jumpsuit, along with a rap duel.
Speed dating is also a good metaphor for how the series finds its lecturers, who are mostly chosen from among the half-dozen audience members who line up after each event to pitch the organizer, Matt Wasowski, on their ideas for future talks.
Anyone who knows more about something than 99.9 percent of the population is “qualified to be a nerd,” said Mr. Wasowski, though he does have a few iron-clad rules for speakers, starting with the requirement that they be as entertaining as possible.
“Ultimately you’re still at a social event on a Thursday or Friday night,” said Mr. Wasowski, a boyishly gangly 36-year-old with a day job at an educational software company. “It’s got to be fun.”
The Nerd Nite style — tongue-in-cheek PowerPoint slides, lots of (sometimes faux) data, plenty of audience participation — was on full display in the final fall event, though not everyone was satisfied by the steady stream of laugh lines in the opening talk, delivered by a stick-wielding financial-services marketer named Roger Ma, author of “The Zombie Combat Manual.”
“The first lecture was kind of fluffy,” John Evan Perigoe, 28, said during intermission. “Hopefully there will be more substance in the next one.”
Susan Carnell, a research psychologist at Columbia who gave the lecture on “Twilight,” did manage to slip some real science into her talk, including references to a recent study of the mating behavior of male topi antelopes and a slide depicting the vagina photoplethysmograph, a contraption used to measure female arousal.
But after the talk, Dr. Carnell — who called herself “a genuine nerd” — said the Nerd Nite experience was less about imparting knowledge than being part of a familial event. “I’ve always wanted to be a best man,” she said. “Everyone’s on your side and wants you to be funny.”
If Secret Science Club is the rock-star professor dropping statistics jokes, and Nerd Nite is the “Star Trek” obsessive who has suddenly started wearing a bit of product in his hair, then Moonlighter Presents is the slightly intimidating couple from your semiotics seminar, ready with a casually brilliant postironic take on just about everything.
This series, which started in 2010 in a former funeral home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, draws about 50 people. It features youngish academics, artists and writers on subjects outside their expertise, though you get the feeling the speakers wouldn’t be caught dead talking about vampires. Instead, topics lean toward theory-tinged eclectica like the poetics of hay fever, the cultural politics of Steely Dan fandom and the history of the car ferry in Elberta, Mich., along with subjects of more urgent local concern, like “What Is Pretentiousness, and Does It Make Me Look Good?”
Stephanie DeGooyer, a doctoral candidate in English literature at Cornell, who started the series with Justin Martin, an artist, said Moonlighter was meant to push back against the hyper-specialization of intellectual life.
“Professionalism has made it so that you can only speak in public if you’ve been invited to speak on something you’ve researched for a long time,” Ms. DeGooyer said. “But off the clock people have all these ideas.”
The events, which are free, have an ambience that’s less date night than earnest dorm-room bull session, though actual dancing did break out at one recent event, held at a Polish bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. New York is increasingly full of D.I.Y. intellectual enterprises like Open City Dialogue, a lecture series held every other Monday at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg, and the courses organized by the Public School or the Brooklyn Brainery, which match people who want to learn about a proposed topic (death in Derrida, beekeeping, “Genetic Engineering in Your Basement”) with someone who wants to teach it.
But few take their metaphors both as seriously and as lightly as Moonlighter, which, this month, means moving the event to an office space in Manhattan, after hours.
A fluorescent-lighted cubicle farm may seem like the last place cool Brooklynites would voluntarily spend an evening, even if the schedule does promise a talk on the “aesthetics, history and mythology of the airport carpet” and an experimental wordless lecture titled “Next Slide Please.”
But to Ms. DeGooyer the setting captures the Moonlighter ethos perfectly. “The idea of an office space is symbolic for what we do,” she said. “Being in a more awkward space inspires a different kind of thinking.”
Beer and Brains
NERD NITE LAUNCH PARTY Friday night at 8, Galapagos Art Space, 16 Main Street, Dumbo, Brooklyn; (718) 222-8500, nyc.nerdnite.com; $11.11.
Other opportunities to wear your pocket protector:
BROOKLYN BRAINERY 515 Court Street, at Ninth Street, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn; brooklynbrainery.com.
OPEN CITY DIALOGUE SERIES Pete’s Candy Store, 709 Lorimer Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn; (718) 302-3770, petescandystore.com.
PROTEUS GOWANUS 543 Union Street, Gowanus, Brooklyn; (718) 243-1572, proteusgowanus.org.THE PUBLIC SCHOOL Various locations; nyc.thepublicschool.org.