CIW Q&A: Nerd Nite Chicago’s Jason St. John

Nerd Nite Chicagoprovides “evidence-based entertainment”—the type of entertainment that pairs, for example, an exploration of the life of bees with the use of “the beloved and timeless characters of Sex in the City as our guide,” all while attendees enjoy beers.  An offshoot of a network of over 75 organizations worldwide, Nerd Nite Chicago regularly hosts free evening events, each featuring a handful of speakers discussing their pet academic topics.  We talked to Nerd Nite Chicago’s Founder and emcee Jason St. John—a physicist who is an expert presenter himself—in advance of tomorrow’s 7 p.m. event at the Bottom Lounge.
With Nerd Nite Chicago, Jason St. John curates “evidence-based entertainment.”
OK, start at the very beginning.  How would you describe the typical Nerd Nite presentation to someone who’s never been before?
It’s not just someone up there giving their opinion.  It’s not a platform for that.  Nerd Nite is for people to bring things that they have found out in the world to other people.  The formula a friend of mine uses is: When there is something where you corner people at a party the moment they ask you about some topic and deliver some rush of information at them, and then they enjoy it—that is a Nerd Nite.
What types of topics have people covered on the Nerd Nite stage?
I try to keep it diverse.  The temptation would be to have an all-science program the whole time because that’s all evidence-based stuff.  But we’re not exclusively science by any means.  We’ve had great presentations from linguists.  One guy very memorably got very drunk and talked about swear words and inclusions from foreign languages in ancient Coptics. 
We’ve also had historians—there was a great one on people who would use hermits as decorative devices on their lawns.  They’d have [the hermits] go and live for seven years without speaking to anyone in exchange for food and shelter.  [Ed. note: This presentation was titled The Life of Times of Ornamental Hermits, and St. John is not kidding about its focus—or this bizarre and sad historical reality.]
So, it sounds like an academic’s brown bag lunch presentation, only considerably less stilted, with more of a sense of humor and more interesting powerpoints.
That’s right—and you can swear and drink, and it’s actually encouraged.  It makes everybody else and just as involved.
What types of Nerd Nite talks have you given?
Every now and then I’ll have something that I should just present.  I’ve given some on my own work, although I encourage people not to give them on their own work.  They tend to take it seriously, and then when they are heckled, their feelings are hurt—
Wait—there’s heckling at Nerd Nite?
Yeah, by their friends, they tend to get heckled.  Like, are those error bars or did buses park on your plots?
What is the typical make up of the crowd?
We end up with quite a cross-section.  When I first went [in Boston, where Nerd Nite started], it was only students.  And I thought that that’s what would happen in Chicago, too.  We do have a lot of students, but we have a lot of young professionals.  It tends to be anyone who is looking for something fun to do in a bar with their friends, and who enjoys learning something while they’re at it.
What’s the most surprising or fascinating or all-around-nerdy fact you’ve learned at Nerd Nite Chicago?
If you buy fresh squid, you should clean it. There was this woman who bit into the spermatophore of the squid, and it was inseminated her tongue, which is very painful.  So, just, clean your squid.
Check out Nerd Nite Chicago tomorrow Wednesday, November 19 at 7 p.m. at the Bottom Lounge.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Erin Robertson is managing editor at Chicago Ideas.

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