Back-to-school is to nerds as homecoming is to jocks. It's our uncalendared holiday. But how do you celebrate if you're no longer in school? By grabbing a beer and a slice, and attending an intellectual free-for-all, of course.
East Bay Science Cafe moves academia off campus to Berkeley's Spud's Pizza, where, based on the European café scientifique tradition of no-holds-barred public discussion, Cal's Natural History Museums have been hosting free lectures on the second Thursday of every month. Topics range from nanotech to astrobiology to flying lizards May's lecture was enticingly titled "The Dangerous Nymphs of California."
This month's event packed forty people into the pizza joint's tiny banquet room, where researcher William Klitz of Oakland's Public Health Institute argued that diabetes may be linked to a newly discovered virus.
It was no discussion for the timid: The format is a sort of academic cage match where the audience is free to shout questions or heckle the speaker's statistical analysis. "That's really suspect!" called out a tattooed epidemiologist as Klitz described his methodology. The scientist seemed to relish this treatment a regular himself, he'd urged the audience to be tough: "I want you to keep your critical hats on, and say 'I don't buy it.'"
The audience complied with a barrage of questions when the moderator proposed that everyone take a break to stretch, the entire back of the room shouted her down.
The point, says Berkeley organizer Deepa Natarajan, is total audience participation. "The founding idea of the café scientifique is to get science out of lecture halls and labs and into public spaces," she says. "One of the most casual meeting spaces is pubs they're called 'pubs' because they're public and the point of that is come, relax and do your normal thing and have this be like a conversation you'd be having over dinner with friends."
For upcoming lectures, visit BNHM.berkeley.edu/about/sciencecafe.php
Cheaters prefer Harvard: We all know the brainiacs are the kids everyone cribs from not the ones buying copies of the answer key in the bathroom. Wrong, says John Barrie, CEO of iParadigm.com, the Oakland maker of antiplagiarism software. Founded in 1996 by Cal grads, iParadigm now screens more than 100,000 academic papers daily. About a third contain verbatim ripoffs, he says most often cut-and-pastes from Wikipedia or Answers.com, or downloads from sites that sell old term papers "for research purposes only." Although plagiarism seems to defy age, race, class, and academic discipline, Barrie says, "there may be a correlation between the prestige of the institution and the propensity of their students to do the wrong thing."
Yep, better schools seem to have more copycats. Initially, "we thought if somebody is going to cheat they'll be going to a local community college," Barrie says. "But if you think more about it, the people at the community college are not competing to get into the best medical and law schools. ... It's the people at these other institutions that are under all the pressure, and the people at the prestigious high schools that want to get into the Harvards and Stanfords."
That troubles Barrie, because these elite schools are minting future leaders. "When you have scandals like the one at Enron or imClone, a lot of people scratch their heads and say, 'How does that Yale-trained MBA pull that type of stunt?'" he muses. "I think if you rewound the tape, you would find they were pulling these stunts back in the good old days." In fact, iParadigm has already busted several high-profile folks, including columnist Ann Coulter, the president of Central Connecticut State University, and a Canadian premier.
Nerd Overheard: From the school supplies aisle at the Albany Target: "I need a hecka big calculator."
Goldberg, et al.: August also holds a special place on the uncalendar as National Inventors' Month, and local nerds have invented far more than the word "hecka." Take the Popsicle. In 1905 one year after Rube Goldberg, notorious for his cartoons of wacky inventions, earned his engineering degree from UC Berkeley Frank Epperson, then eleven years old and living in San Francisco, accidentally invented the sweet treat. He did so by leaving a fortuitous combination of powdered soda, water, and a stirring stick in a cup outdoors overnight during a cold snap, but he didn't capitalize on his idea until years later when he was running a lemonade stand at an Oakland amusement park. The Epsicle later redubbed the Popsicle was a hit, and Epperson patented his creation in 1924.
Victor Bergeron gave us both the mai tai and the tiki-bar empire Trader Vic's. According to the legend, he whipped up a new drink featuring rum, orange curaçao, orgeat syrup, and lime juice for friends visiting his Oakland bar from Tahiti. On his company's Web site, Bergeron writes that one friend "took one sip and said, 'Mai tai roa ae.' In Tahitian this means 'Out of this world the best.' Well, that was that."
The sporting world owes Oakland for "the wave," courtesy of cheerleader Krazy George Henderson, who first engineered the stunt at an A's game in 1981. And finally, Cal is probably the East Bay's most prolific mother of invention, spawning the cyclotron, the BSD Unix operating system, and the synthetically created elements Lawrencium, Californium, and Berkelium. Now that's school spirit.