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At Nerd Nite L.A., Scientists Give Lectures to Drunk People

Emily Rome, left, and Katie KaniewskiEXPAND
Emily Rome, left, and Katie Kaniewski
Allison Knight

Nerd Nite Los Angeles, a monthly lecture series, blends science, education and imbibing into a single PowerPoint-filled evening.

Last Monday, knowledge-hungry nerds were in full force at the Mint on W. Pico Blvd in Mid-City for a night of space lasers, 3-D printing and a myth-busting quiz on autopsies.

"We call it TED talks with beer," said co-boss Katie Kaniewski. Once a month at the Mint, Nerd Nite features three guest presenters who share their impressive expertise on a wide variety of unusual topics. The audience is encouraged to order a round of drinks, ask questions and even lightly heckle the presenters, especially during the question-and-answer session following each presentation - as Kaniewski puts it, it's a chance for the audience to "out-nerd-the-nerd." 

"A lot of presenters come to us," said Cyndi Lynott, the founder of the L.A. chapter of Nerd Nite. She added that UCLA's Society of Postdoctoral Scholars is also very involved, and members often reach out to do fun, interactive presentations on their respective fields of expertise. Nerd Nite is one of a number of local educational or creatively oriented series, such as Mindshare L.A., that take a page from TED talks and offers a casual learning experience that's not only engaging but entertaining as well.

Nerd Nite began in Boston in 2003, when Chris Balakrishnan shared facts about devious indigobirds in Cameroon with friends at a local bar. The idea caught on, and dozens of chapters opened up in cities throughout the world, ranging from Chicago to London and Berlin. Lynott often attended the New York chapter (a music manger during the day, she gave a presentation on ringtones and mobile music sales back in 2007), and once she moved to Los Angeles, she decided to start a chapter here. It's been running monthly since November 2012.

At Nerd Nite L.A., Scientists Give Lectures to Drunk People
Allison Knight

On Monday, the evening opened up with a presentation from Joan Horvath, the vice president of business development at Deezmaker 3D Printers in Pasadena. "I like to call it 'plastic cooking,' but that grosses people out," Horvath said to the audience. While a compact, portable Deezmaker Bukito printer steadily chugged away onstage printing small yellow wheels, Horvath spoke on the "maker movement" - the entrepreneurial, DIY spirit that's currently driving a wave of inventors to experiment with the possible future of 3-D printing. "We think it's a great tool to teach people how to make things again," said Horvath.

Matt Abrahamson with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory followed with a presentation on the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) space laser, a not-so-evil communications laser that beams down from the International Space Station (ISS) to Los Angeles.

Susan Parson then talked about some of the misconceptions of postmortem exams - that autopsies hinder funeral home practices, for instance. "Sometimes autopsies get a bad rap," said Parson.

She shared intense autopsy images and discussed how autopsies help medical professionals learn about diseases. She also debunked classic Hollywood dead body myths. For instance, postmortem exam rooms aren't gloomy, but are brightly lit, and it's near impossible to know the exact time of death simply by quickly glancing at a corpse.

Matt AbrahamsonEXPAND
Matt Abrahamson
Allison Knight

The audience was quick to pick the presenters' brains during and after the presentations - though heckling was at a minimum. "They don't heckle as much as they could," said co-boss Emily Rome.

Trevor Valle, a mitigation paleontologist, frequently attends Nerd Nite L.A. He also did a presentation on busting beloved Jurassic Park-style dinosaur myths for last month's Nerd Nite on May 20. He noted that paleontologists don't dress up like Indiana Jones, and it's saber-toothed "cats," not "tigers."

He said he was nervous about presenting at first, but the audience surprised him - most latched on quickly, and were eager to learn more. "It was kind of crazy. Here I was dashing peoples' dreams. But they really got into it."

Nerd Nite L.A.'s next event is on July 21 at the Mint, 6010 W. Pico Blvd., MId-City. For more info visit la.nerdnite.com.


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