It’s standing-room only at the one-year anniversary of the Secret Science Club in Brooklyn, New York. A crowd of about 200 fills the dark downstairs lounge at Union Hall, a bi-level bar, and there are hip 20- and 30- somethings perched on every available surface, cradling PBRs or tonight’s drink special — The Scientific Method.
At 8 pm the Superstar-of-Science Lecture will begin, but first tonight’s host has a few announcements. “Same time, next month, geologist and NASA researcher Michael Rampino will be here to speak about mass extinctions and the history of life,” he intones.
“Oooh, cool!” squeal four women — all in cat-eye glasses and vintage dresses — seated in front of me. In fact, the only bad news seems to be that the “Geek Chic” T-shirts are going fast.
When tonight’s headliner takes the stage, a hush falls over the crowd. Harold Varmus, a Nobel Prize-winning cancer researcher, has got the geek chops, and yet he hardly acts the part of the quintessential nerd. Rather, he seems relaxed and affable, and with his first question, elicits a wave of appreciative laughter: “Who are all of these people,” he asks this evening’s host, “and why are they spending a weekday night in a science club?”
Why indeed? I ask Liz*, a willowy blonde artist in her early thirties, what brought her here. A tip from her astrophysicist friend, Ben, she says. “He’s one of the most famous astrophysicists in the world. He discovered a star when he was 22!” she gushes. But tonight Liz is here with a wingwoman — a cute brunette with a pixie cut. They came for the lecture, but, says Liz, “I have a fantasy of meeting a really hot science guy.” “Yeah,” her friend chimes in, “Geek guys are mad hot.”
Three 20-something Asian women I stop on the stairs agree. “My favorite are geek guys,” says Veronica. “If a guy can have an intelligent conversation, and know what he’s talking about, that’s such a turn-on.”
“Can I just add that I totally walk around my house in a giant red Napoleon Dynamite T-shirt,” interjects her friend Pui. “He’s so awesome!”
“There’s only one downside to geeks,” concludes Veronica. “They’re so awkward and shy. But once you’ve got them talking about something they care about, I fall… I fall too hard.”
Though my friends and I have long been geekophiles, I’m surprised at the nerd mania on display here. It’s easy to cite any number of reasons geeks don’t sweep most women off their feet. First, they can’t. They tend to be diminutive guys drowning in their favorite Green Lantern T-shirts — not the types who handily throw you over one shoulder, He-Man style. Also, some of the stereotypes do hold true: Typically, they’re small-talk-challenged (more on that later) and not exactly fashion-forward.
There are degrees of geekiness, of course, ranging from the unsocialized Dungeon & Dragon-heads (who probably would be better off as cave-dwellers) to Star Wars buffs who, though they appear normal — true story from a friend — just can’t wait to show off their chocolate Millennium Falcon in their freezer once they get you home. Then there are the functional geeks, who, aside from an overweening affection for model ships, motherboards, or Iron Chef, make perfectly passable boyfriends.
Thing is, what I’ve always loved about all of these guys is that behind every proverbial pocket protector lies a heart of gold: On the whole, geeks are sweet, scarysmart guys, who, if they choose you — and you choose them back — will devote every fiber of their being to making you happy. If you’ve got that, in my opinion, the rough edges can be buffed and polished.
Here, amazingly, was a room teeming with women who agreed.
Meet the Geek-tagonists
These days, science cafes are popping up from San Fran to St. Louis, but they’re not the only places geeks are getting action. Comic-Con, an annual comic book conference in San Diego, recently introduced singles events. And there’s even a dating service catering to geeks now: Nerds at Heart, based in Chicago, where the cerebral-and-looking go to meet their match (while answering trivia or playing Scattergories).
Everywhere you look, nerds are writ large. From Beauty and the Geek — now in its fourth season of pairing dyed-in-the-wool geeks with dyed-blonde bombshells — to new fall shows The Big Bang Theory and Chuck, they’re all over TV. And move over, Russell Crowe, because they’re taking over the cineplexes, too. Judd Apatow films like The 40-Year-old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad have turned Steve Carell, Seth Rogen and Michael Cera into highly-verbal but unlikely heartthrobs.
Which brings me to a great geek trait: They’ll go to incredible lengths to get your attention. Take Josh Herman, who vanquished a mansion full of nerds to win Beauty and the Geek: Season 2. He went on the show with the hopes of getting noticed, not by America, but one woman in particular.
“I was in love with my boss, a big fan of the [show] who would go on about how cute the geeks were. I wanted to scream, ‘That’s me!’” he opines. “[Instead] I wrote love letters I knew I’d never send.” Then he made a tape of his life, figuring he’d let the producers decide if he was geek enough.
He was. And while he can reel off a list of his qualifications in one breath — “I read Ulysses when I was 25, am the proverbial 98-pound weakling, and get nauseous to the point of vomiting around attractive women” — a funny thing happened after he won: “I don’t know why this offends me,” says Herman, “but people have stopped me [in L.A.] and said, ‘You’re not a geek.’”
That’s not an accusation he takes lightly. “Growing up, everyone else wanted to be cowboys, astronauts, actors — I wanted to be an entomologist,” he says. “I think being a geek is being interested in whatever you want to be, no matter how esoteric, yet still being all right with that.” Suddenly, society seems cool with that, too.
Why Nerds Are So Now...
It often takes geeks a long time to peak. Perfect example: Al Gore. “It was one of the things that was so painful about the Bush/Gore election,” says David Anderegg, author of the upcoming book, Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them. “Everybody talking about how geeky Al Gore was.” You can easily imagine them in high school: Gore, a stiff Honors Society student; Dubya, a popular jock, holding court at the cool table.
And yet, back in the future, there’s Bush, the beleaguered outgoing president with a plummeting approval rating, and Gore, who, rather than retreating in defeat, refocused, and, in true Revenge of the Nerds fashion, snagged no less than the Nobel Prize for his one-man mission to save the earth.
Does this mean we’re finally ready to let geeks rule the world? There’s a reason their time has come, says Kevin Anderson, PhD, a cultural anthropologist at Clark University, and it’s the rise of a new breed of geek, different in one key way from types we’ve known before. “These supernerds display a genuine concern for other individuals and their community,” says Anderson. (Bill Gates — who left Microsoft to save Africa — pops to mind.) “This is quite the opposite from the typical portrayal of the nerd as antisocial and myopic, obsessed only with books, chess and computer games.”
I put the question to Adam Rogers. As a longtime Wired editor, and now a correspondent for the new PBS show, Wired Science, it’s his job to keep up with the latest in geekdom.
“The old joke was the nerd joke — the Aspergered-out loser, you know?” he says. “But those people all run the world now. You look up and go, ‘Oh, the richest man in the world is that guy.’ When a piece of equipment on my desk doesn’t work, the only person in the world who can save me is that guy.”
He raises a good point: Don’t look now, but there’s been a paradigm shift, and the very stuff that used to be geeky — gadgets, technology, interactivity — is suddenly sexy.
“The supernerd embodies one of the primary obsessions of our current times: ability to access information,” says Anderson.
So, if geeks are sweet, smart and now hold all the cards, what’s not to love?
Do They Make Better Mates?
In the long run, they might. But there’s one subject that doesn’t come easy to geeks: courtship. That, says Rogers, is because — despite all those IQ points — they just don’t get subtext.
“When [a geek is] invited up for coffee, he doesn’t know if he’s being invited up for coffee or sex,” he explains. “They don’t have that emotional intelligence. They have to get really good at reading the specific clues. How close is she standing? What is her body posture? Is she laughing at my jokes?”
It reminds me of the time I said to a geek ex, giddy while out walking one spring day, “Look how blue the sky is!” Rather than taking my hand, he delivered a lengthy lecture on the Tyndall Effect: Why the Sky Is Blue. And this wasn’t a guy who lacked empathy; he nursed our houseplants back to health and cried during March of the Penguins. It’s just that a geek’s approach to life tends to be if-x-then-y. They don’t get hints.
That said, there is a romantic upshot to all their careful calibration. “The reason nerds and geeks work well [as mates] is that they’re problem solvers,” says Rogers. “They bring these skills that we believe make it impossible for them to carry on normal social relations, to bear on partners.” In other words, to a geek, any problem — even a love-related one — is solvable, making them clutch when the going gets tough. “This is someone who says, ‘You can fix this stuff. How do we get there?’” says Rogers. “In a relationship, that’s something.”
Josh Herman agrees. “Geeks are obsessive about Stars Wars, The Simpsons, comic books — and love,” he says. “And not just in the infatuation stage. The same passion I bring to anything in my life, I also bring to my relationships.”
Case in point: “This girl I was interested in in high school wanted to go to the butterfly exhibit at the zoo,” Herman says, “but she complained that you could never get close enough to them.”
One Saturday, off they went. When they arrived at the Butterfly House, his date watched with a mix of curiosity and horror as he dumped the contents of the water bottle he’d been carrying all over his head and arms.
“It wasn’t water. It was sugar water I had mixed up that morning,” he explains. “Butterflies attacked me.” He, in turn, waved the colorful swarm toward his flabbergasted date, who, lo and behold, soon became his girlfriend.
“Would a non-geek have thought of that?” Herman challenges. “Probably not.”
No, probably not. And in that, lies the Catch-22 of dating a guy who is one: It’s not for the faint of heart, but, in the end, the stuff a geek will cook up to win yours will likely make it flutter. For the long haul.
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