ALAMEDA -- The USS Hornet aircraft carrier no longer cruises at 33 knots, but tickets to climb aboard for the Bay Area Science Festival's "Nerd Nite at Sea" are disappearing faster than a spacecraft blasting off for the moon. Forty-four years after it picked up astronautical hitchhikers (Apollo 11 and 12 crews), the 70-year old ship in Alameda Point will host a fleet of up to 1,000 brainy, beer-loving Bay Area nerds on Wednesday.
"Nerd Nites" find their origin in Boston, where founder Chris Balakrishnan's fascination with a particular wayward bird family led to a global movement. Today, there are gatherings at bars and pubs worldwide, where presenters pontificate on their personal obsessions while audiences infuse themselves with beer. Like yeast, Nerd expansion means the fun's no longer hyperlocal or only at night: nerds fest globally, read Nerd magazine and wear nerd merch. It's all about discovery and here in the Bay Area, the land of excess in the name of nerdly excellence, it's not only the scientific experts who are hell bent on their quests.
The beer drinkers are getting into the one-upmanship, as well. A special 2013 science beer, created by BASF with Pac Brew Labs and transformed into a pear-infused Belgian Strong Ale, might outdo last year's seaweed-laced brew. Crowdsourced to achieve its crown in a stiff race with two contenders, the brewers' geekified standards dictated that only the beers' yeast strains be differentiated. The fruity winner will be served on the Hornet deck and at a landlubbers' "Creatures of the NightLife" at California Academy of Sciences on Thursday.
The BASF, like Nerd Nite, unfurls its multiple "strains" from simple café settings. Founder Kishore Hari, on staff as BASF director at UC San Francisco's Science and Health Education Partnership, ignited local nerdliness in 2007, with "Down to a Science" gatherings in San Francisco. The free-wheeling, social intersections of solid science and serious celebrating fermented: growing into a connective web portal, BayAreaScience.org., and rocketing outward with the festival, now in its third year and attracting thousands of visitors to the 10-day extravaganza from Oct. 24 to Nov. 2.
Although the majority of BASF events are aimed at kids and families, Nerd Night at Sea is limited to guests 21 and older. In 2012, the Alcatraz Hybrid Clipper Ship took 330 lucky ticket holders out on the San Francisco Bay for squid dissection, plankton trawling, science talks and beer.
"The event sold out in about six to 10 hours," Hari said in an interview. "It was a shock seeing people scalp tickets on Craigslist. We decided we were going to need a bigger boat. This year, we've tripled in size."
Onboard the Hornet, a small battalion of featured nerdist will command talks on synesthesia, asteroid impact defense and the more-than-50-year love affair between artists and engineers in the electronics and space industries.
"We chose the speakers for various reasons, but we didn't tie every piece of content to the (Hornet's) history," Hari explained.
UC Berkeley doctoral candidate Bryan Alvarez researches synesthesia, a perceptual miswiring causing people with the condition to associate colors with numbers, or taste flavors when hearing certain words. As a person living with the sensory blending condition, Alvarez will speak from both scientific and personal experience.
"Bryan will be doing an interactive experiment with the crowd -- something he needed over 500 participants to do. It was a natural fit," Hari said.
Russell "Rusty" Schweickart was Apollo 9's Lunar Module pilot and first to walk, untethered, in space. An outspoken advocate of planetary defense against asteroid impacts, he is chair emeritus on the board of the B612 Foundation, a Silicon Valley nonprofit he co-founded. Responding to the same lack of awareness leading people to misdiagnose synesthesia as "fanciful imaginations," Schweickart will aim an arsenal of scientific evidence at skeptical suppositions downplaying the dangers of asteroid impacts.
Writer and Prelinger Library co-founder Megan Prelinger shares Nerd Nite's close relationship with libraries, but Hari is more excited about her third pedigree: "She's a big sci-fi nerd," he boasted. Prelinger will trace the intricate tango between artists (like the ones who hand-drew Apollo-era electronics images) and the engineers building the spacecraft industry.
With docent-led ship tours, mini-solar car racing, blimp drones, rovers, blood-spurting simulators used to train soldiers dealing with IED's and the all important pear-infused Belgian Strong Ale, the Hornet may not roll, but it will rock and nerdery will rule.