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Science Geeks and Word Nerds Find Home at Local Watering Holes

BROOKLYN — A marine biologist walks into a bar.

That's not the start of a joke, it's something that happened in Gowanus last week when The Bell House hosted its monthly Secret Science Club, where audiences learn about topics such as microbiology and neuroscience while enjoying cold brews.

It's one of many Park Slope and Gowanus events that cater to crowds who want to boost their brain power while downing cocktails.

"There was a lot of drinking, but there was also a lot of thinking," said Secret Science Club co-founder Margaret Mittelbach of last week's event. "People are eager to go out and educate themselves, but also have fun."

The theme of the most recent Secret Science Club was sharks, and the festivities started with The Bell House's sound system blasting a half hour of loosely Jaws-themed songs such as Radiohead's "Weird Fishes." Then guests sipped "Land Shark" cocktails while door prizes donated by the New York Aquarium were handed out.

The main event was a PowerPoint lecture by marine biologist Hans Walters that ended with a humorous slide on how to turn the Discovery Channel's Shark Week into a drinking game. Next was a screening of a documentary about marine scientists.

At a question-and-answer session, audience members asked "highly intellectual" questions about complex topics like shark evolution, but also tested Walters with a query on who would win a fight between a grizzly bear and a shark, Mittelbach said.

Like many Brooklyn performance venues, the Bell House, at 149 Seventh St. near Second Avenue, packs in music lovers when bands like Beach House play there. But science fans can have their needs met too. In addition to Secret Science Club, the Bell House also hosts StarTalk Live, a science-themed panel discussion hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

"It's people who are interested in college type information, but without tests, and with beer," Mittelbach said of the Science Club crowd.

A similar audience shows up for two regular events at Littlefield, at 622 DeGraw St. off Fourth Avenue in Gowanus. The venue hosts up-and-coming bands like The Vandelles and The Brooklyn What, but once a month Littlefield invites "geeks" to The Big Quiz Thing, which bills itself as the "smartest live trivia anywhere."

"It's a trivia night, but the questions are super hard," said Littlefield co-owner Julie Kim. "You have to definitely know history, current events and be up on entertainment. Even my friends who are hardcore trivia fans don't know the answers."

Sample question: What two presidential candidates from different parties joined the same ticket? Answer: Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.

Littlefield patrons also have to think on their feet on the first Tuesday of every month, when Punderdome 3000 rolls into the venue. Punderdome 3000, co-hosted by the father and daughter team of Fred and Jo Firestone, is an on-stage pun competition where word lovers try to outdo each other with clever turns of phrase.

At the tournament-style pun-off, contestants are given different topic in each round, then have 90 seconds to come up with a pun. An example from a round about New York City's boroughs: "Which borough hates Kindles more than any other borough? Nooklyn." A pun from a round about child stars: "I heard the star of "Malcolm in the Middle," he lives in a Frankie Munoz-ipality."

Far from a sedate evening of witty repartee, Punderdome 3000 has a rowdy atmosphere with lots of back-and-forth between the Firestones and the audience, who often shout out their own quips. A blindfolded "human clap-o-meter" sits on stage and gauges the audience's reaction to each pun.

"It attracts people that have fun with words," Fred Firestone said. "They like language and they also want to have a good time as well."

Both The Big Quiz Thing and Punderdome 3000 are popular draws at Littlefield, and audiences don't seem to be worried about losing brain cells by over-imbibing, Kim said.

"There's this misconception of geeks and nerds of being shy and not being social," Kim said. "I find it's completely the opposite. If anything, they can drink anyone under the table and still answer these questions. It's pretty amazing to watch."

At Park Slope's Union Hall (702 Union St. near Fifth Avenue), both word and science lovers get a kick out of the monthly Story Collider event, where people get on stage and tell personal stories with a science theme.

On Sept. 19, Union Hall will host Comedians with Books, part of the Brooklyn Book Festival, where comedians who've authored books will take the stage. And in October, audiences are invited to a live show called Geeking Out, where comedians, storytellers and writers engage in an evening of "shameless nerding out" over bands and video games, according to the show's Facebook page.

Despite the name for the last event, Union Hall manager Tim Rochester said he's hesitant to label his audiences as geeks or nerds.

"I just think they're people with varied interests," Rochester said. "Our bookers and programmers work hard to provide a variety of events that attract all sorts of folks. We're lucky to live in a city where things like this can be successful and you can make a party night out of (something like) Secret Science Club."