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Nerd Nite Comes To State College

“Nerd Nite” has come to Central Pennsylvania! The first event in a monthly series took place last week State College.

Semih Eser, a professor of Energy and Geo-Environmental Engineering, started off the evening with Turkish music on guitar. He played to a capacity crowd, gathered for the inaugural Nerd Nite at Webster’s Bookstore Café.

“I’m at Nerd Nite because I want to be surrounded by my fellow nerds,” said Bill Arden of State College, a retired college astronomy teacher. He sat at a table in the back.

What does Arden think of when he hears the word “nerd?” 

“I think of people like me,” he said, “in our glasses, and studious, and a little bit out of the world and odd.”

Ashley Walter, a doctoral student in mass communication at Penn State, associates nerds with “alternative interests.” But does she consider herself a nerd?

“I think anybody who’s in a doctoral program is probably a nerd,” Walter says.  “So, I guess the answer might be, by default, yes.”

Mel Meder is co-founder of Nerd Nite State College.

“So Nerd Nite is really a way for folks to come together with friends,” Meder said, “listen to three awesome people talk about what they’re passionate about, and really just have a lot of fun learning together.”

Meder said the crowd was there to nerd-out not just with a science talk (by Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann), but also to hear about the role of crafting in political activism and (wait for it) belly dancing.  

"So it really can run the gamut as far as topics and the kind of people who are sharing their passion,” she said. “Really it is a chance to get a window into someone else’s passion. And I really enjoy that part the most.”

Meder wanted to start this State College event after attending some Nerd Nights while she was living in Madison, Wisconsin.

“And I really found them to be a lot of fun,” she said. “Bringing friends, meeting new friends, it was just a wonderful way to connect, and of course, to learn something new.”

Stephanie Madden of State College is an assistant professor in the College of Communications at Penn State. She’s the other co-founder of the State College Nerd Night.

“I started the Nerd Nite Memphis chapter two years ago as a way to make friends as somebody in my 30’s,” Madden said. “So to me, it’s always about this community-building function. And it’s about people bringing their passions in life to this conversation and a platform that diversifies this understanding of what 'nerd' is, but brings people together.”

“It’s funny, too,” Meder added. “Nerd Nite is meant to be funny. You know, it’s a tongue-in-cheek experience a lot of times. So it’s not meant to be like an academic conference. It’s not meant to be just a dry recitation. It’s a fun experience.”

Elaine Meder Wilgus, the owner of Webster’s Bookstore Cafe (and the mother of Mel Meder) was emcee for the evening’s festivities. She said Nerd Nite started back in 2003 when a Boston University doctoral student gave his drinking buddies in a dive bar a presentation about the bird he was studying. That led to the tradition of holding the event at drinking establishments. So for Nerd Nite, Otto’s Pub and Brewery (a WPSU underwriter, by the way) staffed a table in the back of the house, selling beer by the can.

In honor of Nerd Nite, Meder Wilgus wore an elaborate, rather frilly dress. It had a sort of bustle in the back, a bit reminiscent of an earlier century. But you could read this dress, because it was made out of rolled and folded pages from a book. Her enthusiasm ass evident, and she encouraged the audience to join in.

“Please, the one thing about Nerd Nite is do not be shy,” Meder Wilgus told them from the stage. “If something excites you, whoop and holler and whistle.” 

She mentioned that there would be special guests between the three speakers.  They would have trivia questions and prizes for the audience.

Nerd Nite co-founder Stephanie Madden was the first presenter, on the history of “craftivism” - everything from symbols sewn in quilts to help travelers on the Underground Railroad to using knitting for clandestine communication.

The specific combinations of knit and pearls: basically it’s like little Morse Code,” Madden told the audience, “and you could create a secret message in like a scarf for somebody.”

Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann was next.  He called himself a “card-carrying nerd.”

“It’s sort of nice to be getting my nerd on," Mann said.

From the stage, he spoke on weather, theoretical physics and climate change. He previewed an article he has coming out in a future edition of Scientific American.

“What I’m particularly interested in and what this article is about,” Mann told the audience, ”is the extreme weather events that we had this summer, across the entire northern hemisphere. We cannot explain them without taking into account climate change."

After his talk, the world-renowned scientist sat down among his fellow nerds with a beer, to listen to the finale of Nerd Nite: a talk on Egyptian dance by Shannon Bishop, the owner of Black Cat Bellydance. 

“I want to thank Elaine for inviting me,” Bishop says. “She said to me, ‘We’re doing this thing called Nerd Nite. Are you into it?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, absolutely I am! What is Nerd Nite?’” (This gets a laugh from the crowd.)

Bishop is clearly up to the task of following talks by two Penn State professors.

“I feel like I’m the token commoner presenting tonight,” she said. ”So I’m representing all of us in the room who just have something that we really love, and maybe don’t have a PhD in.”

Bishop’s talk about the origins of what we call “belly dance” was quite enlightening. And she ended her talk with a demonstration of her art, dancing through the audience in a bejeweled white costume.

According to the Nerd Nite website, there are monthly Nerd Nite events in more than 100 cities around the globe. Now State College has taken its place among the nerdiest, with Nerd Nites planned for the second Wednesday of each month at Webster’s. 

The next Nerd Nite is scheduled for Wednesday, March 13 at 7 p.m. at Webster’s Bookstore Café in State College.

Kristine Allen is Program Director of WPSU-FM. She also files feature stories for WPSU on the arts, culture, science, and more. When she's not at WPSU, Kris enjoys playing folk fiddle, acting, singing and portrait-sketching. She is also a self-confessed "science geek." Kris started working in public radio in college, at age 17, and says she "just couldn't stop."
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