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Brighton Nerd Nite, Science Festival Special - review by Annabelle Spender

I have never been to a Brighton Nerd Nite before that is not to say I have never been to an event full of talks on nerdy subjects but this was different. Previous talks have been around a specialist theme or subject that only designers, social media specialists or marketers would be interested in attending. This was going to be a different experience of seeing a different array of what we consider to be nerds in modern society from all different aspects of life. This event interested me because of my love of talks and learning new things.

Nerd Nite photos by Annabelle Spender

As I was attending the event solo, I wasn't aware of where I was going or what to expect but after getting my name off the guest list ticked and an entry stamp marked on my hand I cautiously made my way down the two lots of stairs to the basement of Komedia. Arriving early and being on my own meant that while I didn't have the front row I did get a seat on the second row of tables close to the stage. As the room slowly filled I was surrounded by other locals who had arrived in groups of two or three and quickly found that none of us had been to a Nerd Nite before. This was going to be an interesting event for all of us. The talk of cake and biscuits filled the table, as we got to know each other while waiting for the rest of the room to fill. Ninja cookies, chocolate cake and wookie gingerbread filled the table as nerdy glasses and pots of mini eggs were placed on all of the tables. The big screen in front of us also projected onto the smaller screens around the room allowing
everyone to see a counter slowly tick down to 0.

As the opening cheers of the crowd died down the host took to the stage. He introduced himself, the history of Nerd Nite and noted it was to a much larger crowd than he was used to at these events. It turns out that Nerd Nite started in Boston, which is where he went to his first one while attending Kidney Week, a festival for kidney specialist doctors. Along with finding out which kidney is better (turns out it is the left one as the right one is under the shadow of the powerful liver, while the left is only next to the stupid spleen). Quirky jokes made the room giggle and laugh before a breakdown of the event was described, with­ three talks, a quiz and the chance to meet other self ­proclaimed nerds. Brighton Nerd Nites were the first in the UK and now are part of four others running.

Dr John Wood, specialist in viruses

The first speaker was introduced to the room with light applause and Dr John Wood took to the stage. He gave a very brief but impressive introduction about his history as a specialist in viruses. Starting with a brief overview of what makes up a virus and how they work, he started with the flu and how through genetic re-assortment it continues to evolve allowing it to die off or grow stronger. This gave the audience a basic understanding of concepts that later would be critical to understand. Breaking down the differences between bird based viruses and human based ones, it was clear that bird based flus could be very fatal to humans if they evolved to be more contagious but currently it is very hard for us to get these unless we are dealing with slaughtering hundreds of birds a day.


Dr Wood started next to talk about SARS and the exploration of where it came from. It turns out that bats are behind SARS getting to the human popular and its rapid spread. Next up came MERS, which most people in the room had not hard of. Currently 41% of people infected by this virus have died as it shuts down all the organs. It was at this point that everyone began to feel that this was going to be very interesting but possibly gloomy too. It was only when he was explained how difficult it was to currently get the virus did the room lighten. But the genetic re-assortment means that it could develop into something more infectious. This is why we were warned this is something we are likely to start hearing more about as a possible future epidemic. Originally thought to be from Camels as they had the virus but also the virus increased at times when camels came together for the spring, the virus was found in the local bat population with 95% comparison similarities to the MERS virus. The bats it turns out are behind this but the camels were collateral damage.

Dr John Wood, Nerd Nite photos by Annabelle Spender

Ebola virus

As something that has been in the news over the last year, Ebola was bound to appear in the talk and it appeared as the third virus. As viruses have spikes on the outside so that they can grip onto cells that they then infect and take over, the ebola virus being so long it has hundreds and hundreds of spikes all over making it very easy to grip onto cells. It again appears to come from bats the room was talked through patient zero and how little kids were playing in a forest behind a village in West Africa. It turns out that they were not eating them ­the theory that is among most people ­ but little kids playing under the local trees which turns out to be infected bat dung.

HIV and AIDs

While this virus is now finally starting to diminish, the virus is evolving. As this was said a shudder rippled through the room. The final virus was HIV and AIDs ­and details of how it has evolved through the last hundred years to what it is today showed the complexities of how social changes can suddenly increase these viruses. There are four different types of what we know as HIV but while it was first found in the early 1980's they found it in tissue samples from as early as the 1960's but believe it started in the Congo in the early 1900's.

The talk throughout dispelled lots of myths to do with viruses, such as HIV coming from intercourse between apes and men, as well as the origin of the likes of SARS and Ebola. It filled fear but also comfort to the level of risk of infection in the UK. The level of knowledge was so clear that Dr Wood happily answered questions from the audience, including whether the Victorians saw the connection between death and bats or why they appeared to be such good carriers for viruses.

As the talk finished, and the clapping died down, the audience eagerly wanted to talk about the incredible facts that they had learned during the break. With only 10 minutes until the next talk, the room erupted in talk and shuffling as people went to top up their drinks. It was a shame then that the organisers decided to constantly put up the music as­ this ruined the event for many people. These breaks, should have been an exciting time to discuss the evening, instead made it the lowest point and made almost everyone on my table consider leaving during the first break to escape the wall of noise.

Professor Jonathan Bacon about Game theory

As I managed to get through the break, I was able to enjoy the second talk by Professor Jonathan Bacon about Game theory. If you are not a fan of spiders, this may be something that you want to skip as the talk was full of videos, images and talk of spiders, and not little ones... His talk was all about how spiders puzzled even the great Darwin when it came to game theory and his own research. He started the talk by showing the thick lines of silk that they had come across that had led to a giant wall of webs. It turns out that spiders in this part of Africa live in spider bags during the day and come out at night. Over the course of an hour they make their way along the silk and started making webs in there was space. In an hour this commute of 250 spiders was complete. While making their web, they ward off others by bouncing. Early on in the hour the intruding spiders leave but as the hour goes on they ignore the bouncing and stay around the web.

Professor Jonathan Bacon, Nerd Nite photos by Annabelle Spender

Prof. Bacon then, bringing the crowd to laughter, brought up figures exclaiming how he wanted to show that he did more than just watching spiders for an hour each day. The data showed that they stayed later as it was in both the owner of the web and the intruding spiders interest for them to stay in case there is a big prey ­ a spider on its own would not be able to capture a big prey on its own. This is where Darwin got confused because these normally very solitary creatures would happily work together.

This is where game theory came in, and Prof. Bacon used Doves and Hawks to explain. He relayed this with an image of two doves (well one dove and one evod) fighting over a worm. When two doves meet they don't fight but share it 50/50. Mutations though occur in nature so finally one day a dove will get stronger. In his example the dove now gets a gun to a loud laughter erupting in the room. This is when it becomes a hawk, and when a dove and hawk meet, the hawk gets the worm. As more hawks appear, they meet and fight over the worm. Now this may sound boring and simple but as the talk went on, the laughs got bigger but also more interesting. His research shows how spiders are using game theory naturally to make their decisions to their benefit. This is how they work together so well. They determine whether or not to ignore spider that built the web or try to find
space for their own web. His ground breaking research thrilled the audience when mixed with his humour.

Rather than a break straight away, a quiz took place with everyone using the nerdy glasses handed out at the start of the evening. Questions were asked and people had to answer by putting glasses on their face or nose. As the questions whittled away the crowd to the final 6, they were asked onto the stage to answer. The questions were a mix of different subjects from light­ years between earth and Pluto to questions about the name of Donald Duck's father. It got the crowd to giggle and chatter throughout to the final question as only two remained ­ the crowd buzzed as they kept everyone in suspense to who won! We would only find out at the end of the night.

Following a loud applause, our host informed everyone of another break ­ this time just for 5 minutes. Again, the organisers killed the atmosphere with their need for music rather than allowing the crowd to talk. This time they decided sooner to crank up the noise making it another hellish time. Again the temptation to leave at this point was very tempting.

Punk Science duo from the British Science Museum

Punk Science, Nerd Nite photos by Annabelle Spender

Punk Science, Nerd Nite photos by Annabelle Spender

Finally the sound was lowered to a bearable level as the host introduced the final talk ­ or quiz, by Punk Science duo from the British Science Museum. With their excitable nature and quirky jokes, they had the crowd giggling away. Now they asked everyone to stand up and to only sit down until they got to a film on the top 50 IMDB Sci­Fi films that they hadn't seen. As they made their way down the list only a few people at a time would lower ­ until it got to number 8 when everyone in the room sat down. Continuing down the list, after getting back to their feet, they made it to another film no one had seen. It was at this point that they picked the only person in the audience who had not seen any Star Wars film and 3 others who had been standing near the end of the film list.

Nerd Nite photos by Annabelle Spender

With their final four they got them to operate buzzes... which sounded when you put your finger in a glass of water. While one person had to be replaced due to health reasons related to contact with electricity, each contestant found out what their buzzer noise was with sound clips or theme tunes from Star Wars, Star Trek, Men in Black and Super Mario Bros. Each was given a costume item to make it clear who had each buzzer sound and the quiz started. All the questions were science themed and had the audience erupting in laughter. As they ran out of questions, they found that a problem that two people were tied for second place so their final round was going to get a bit complicated. Sending away one, they started the sudden death round ­ to stay in you had to eat the edible bugs each time they brought them out. Yucking out the audience showing what these contestants were about to digest. While "ewwww" and "yuck" filled the room, the presenters acted far more shocked that all three kept eating what was being given to them... even when they had to eat a half bitten bug. At the end, they were very open that they thought most or all of them would give up at the first bug so all three drew.

Nerd Nite photos by Annabelle Spender

While this talk was funny and interesting, it was harder to take any new information away when memories of jokes, bugs and laughter fill your mind. This, for the science festival special, was a good choice as it was memorable and exciting but was also a great contrast to the first very sombre talk.

The final talk brings the night to an end, the crowd buzzing from all the fun and new found information. Wrapping up the whole night with the winner of the first quiz, highlighting the next Nerd Nite and farewells, it was clearly an exciting night for everyone as chatter erupted.

The event itself was amazing with the mix of great talks, quizzes and meeting other local people with similar interests to my own. While it is a shame that half the guests wanted to leave with overzealous use of music in the breaks but the rest of the event was incredible. It was great to hear from two amazing doctors about their work and meet some other great people.

If you love great talks, company and fun quizzes, this is a monthly event that you should check out!

With Huge Thanks to Annabelle Spender for her review and photos - follow @lillyringletLillyRinglet blog

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