Geek Out at East Bay Nerd Nites

Oakland’s is one of 90 Nerd Nites around the country, with Rick Karnesky, Rebecca Cohen, and Scott Weitze inviting presenters from all walks of life.


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Photo by Melati Citrawireja

Marlene Wilson was working the pinball machine, flipping the ball straight into the target as bells rang and lights flashed red, green, yellow, and blue. It was Nerd Nite at the Chabot Space & Science Center, and Wilson was in her element.

Nerd Nite East Bay happens on the last Monday of every month, generally at Oakland’s Club 21 nightclub downtown, though sometimes at venues like Chabot. Speakers hold forth on their areas of nerdly expertise while the audience downs alcoholic beverages.

Occasionally, the audience gets hands-on experiences such as playing pinball.

“I played pinball at the corner store when I was a kid,” Wilson said, never missing a beat as she worked the flippers on the machine, one of 35 vintage machines on loan from Alameda’s Pacific Pinball Museum.

“I’m a Nerd Nite regular,” said Wilson, a former math and science teacher and Oakland resident. The night’s program included a lecture on the science of pinball by pinball museum director Michael Schiess.

Nerd Nite started in Boston in the early 2000s and now is held in about 90 cities around the world, making it globally geeky. The East Bay events began in 2012, and topics have included the neuroscience of love and addiction, why your butt burns after eating spicy foods, the genesis of Cthulhu, and home coffee roasting.

“I’m an information junkie, so I have a personal interest in learning as much as I can,” said East Bay Nerd Nite co-founder Rick Karnesky of Oakland, who is a metallurgist.

These days, Karnesky runs the events with

Rebecca Cohen, a Berkeley illustrator who designs the posters, and Scott Weitze of Alameda, who works in biotech.

The three get their ideas from a variety of sources, including suggestions from the regulars who come to their events, which draw between 150 and 200 people. Other sources are social media, whatever’s in the news, or whatever catches their eye, Weitze said.

“We read a couple of Shanna Farrell’s articles and geeked out on them,” Karnesky said. “She’s a cocktail historian who works for the UC Berkeley Oral History Center.”

Along with Farrell, Robert Bernardo of the Port of Oakland appeared in November. Bernardo gave a virtual tour of the port’s shipping cranes. Attorney and historian Arthur Kay was the third speaker, captivating the nerdlings in attendance with a scathing expose of the Pilgrims.

“When a Pilgrim search party saw Native Americans for the first time, they fired on them,” Kay said. At the time, they were robbing a Native American grave, he said.

Kay added, “Pilgrims hated Christmas. It was a glorified PR stunt in their eyes, which was not entirely wrong,” setting off a roar of laughter.

Though many audience members said they came to hear about the port, it was clear that the other talks captured their interest as well.

“There is something magical about that moment of discovery,” Weitze said. “Some of our audiences come to hear one of their friends present. When they hear a presentation they didn’t think they would like, but end up finding it interesting—that’s my favorite part of Nerd Nite.”

 

Visit EastBay.NerdNite.com for schedules and tickets.

 

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