At some local nightspots, nerds rule
Intellectual city's bars and restaurants cash in with slideshows, trivia contests
It may be the jocks who have made headlines for Boston, with their World Series triumph and talk of a Super Bowl dynasty.
But nerds are the real lifeblood of this city.
''There are so many nerds in Boston," said Chris Balakrishnan, a postdoctoral fellow in biology at Harvard University who organizes monthly Nerd Nite gatherings for like-minded, well, nerds. ''It's just remarkable."
Bar and restaurant owners are getting wise to nerd power and the fact that geeks pay. Across the city, venues have opened their doors for events such as Nerd Nite and reaped the financial benefits of a city population that, thanks to numerous universities, will never suffer a drought of studious overachievers.
The nerds have brought thousands of dollars on nights when business was generally slow. Nerd Nite, which initially was held on Wednesdays, became so popular during the last year that the owners of the Midway Cafe in Jamaica Plain agreed to let the nerds take over coveted Friday nights and fill the stage usually reserved for bands with their laptops and slideshow presentations.
The nerds bring the friends they never had in high school and lure strangers curious about topics such as the dog-faced fruit bats of Southeast Asia. They debate the etymology of nerd and geek and suggestions for proper usage.
The term nerd, which first appeared in 1950 in Dr. Seuss's book, ''If I Ran the Zoo," now applies to anyone who is very bright but socially inept, according to Jim Burrows, a Maynard technical operations manager and self-described nerd who has researched the word for the past 10 years.
Chris Cakebread, an advertising professor at Boston University, estimated that Boston, with all its universities and high-tech companies, probably ranks among the five nerdiest cities in the country. He said businesses are smart to provide places for these sophisticated intellectuals to gather.
''It's a good crowd to tap into," Cakebread said. ''Nobody's really marketing to them, and it's kind of like the gay and lesbian community coming out of the closet a decade ago in Boston. It's OK to have a pocket protector."
The nerds can get rowdy, in their own way. Before the projector flicked on a recent Friday's Nerd Nite, the beer-swigging audience began to chant: ''Nerds, nerds, nerds." When Boston University graduate student Heidi Fisher launched into her slideshow presentation on how humic acid impacts the sex lives of swordtail fish, she was periodically interrupted by hecklers shouting: ''Show us the DNA!"
At Midway Cafe, the nerds sell out Friday nights, and the small bar doesn't have to compete with the leather jackets and baseball hats watching the Red Sox next door at Doyle's Cafe. Plus, the geeks come prepared.
''The nerds never ask if there's a cash machine," said Dave Balerna, co-owner of Midway Cafe. ''And I don't have to worry about a nerd acting up while someone is giving a talk about clams having sex."
Even trivia nights, which have sprung up across the city to attract customers on slow weekdays, are landing prime Saturday-night spots. Apparently, no night is too good to show off some smarts.
At Pizzeria Uno in Porter Square, manager Paul Tupa recently began holding Saturday-night trivia games, which rake in an extra $1,500 per night.
More than 10 teams crowded the bar on a recent Saturday, sipping Sam Adams beer, feasting on chicken thumbs, and scribbling answers to questions such as: ''Name all four railroad properties in Monopoly" (the Reading, B&O, Pennsylvania, and Short Line).
Quiz master Michael O'Neill, who hosts three trivia nights a week, also doubled as the DJ, spinning nerd-friendly tunes, anthems of the rejected with such lyrics as ''I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me?" and ''Why do you build me up, Buttercup, baby, just to let me down?"
Several teams said they never would have come to Pizzeria Uno if not for the trivia.
''Not only are we nerds," said Jason Wildhagen, 27, a member of the winning trivia team for four weeks straight, ''but we are also bar snobs."
Patrick Lee, owner of the Redline Cafe in Harvard Square, said he believes that the success of trivia nights helped spawn other gatherings, such as Nerd Nite at his restaurant, Cafe Scientifique. On Tuesday, more than 40 people crowded into a back room at the Redline to hear Max Tegmark, a physics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lead a discussion about ''Cosmology and the Meaning of Life."
Tegmark featured his slideshow presentation on a white tablecloth draped over a partition, with topics ranging from dark energy to the future of the universe. People filled the cushioned chairs, couches, and even squatted on the floor for the two-hour discussion.
When Tegmark paused for a five-minute break, one man shouted, ''We don't have time for a break."
But Eugenie Reich, a features editor for New Scientist magazine, gently insisted. ''We only get this bar for all the money we spend on drinks," she said.
The man, Dennis Livingston, quietly conceded.
''We need like five hours," said Livingston, a gray-haired cabaret songwriter from Brookline. ''I mean, you can get this all on Channel 2, but this is more fun."
Jenn Abelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.