Sex on the brain

Newly hip nerds are winning legions of adoring fans.

John Wilkes was known as the ugliest man in England. The 18th-century politician was cross-eyed, with a sloped forehead, droopy jaw and mangled teeth. When he met a woman, he claimed, it took him half an hour to ''talk away'' his face.

Wilkes was a nerd, but he had sex appeal. Unfortunately, his charms reached a narrow audience - the minority of Britons literate and wealthy enough to keep his company. In the digital age, he could have ruled the world.

Australia's appreciation of nerds is still catching up to international standards.

Thanks to computers, education and the internet, today's nerds have groupies. TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conferences have revived the public lecture as a form of mass entertainment. At a Californian event, the supremely dorky writer Malcolm Gladwell was cheered like a pop star after he gave an 18-minute talk on spaghetti sauce.

In Australia, nerds have long been derided for their quirky obsessions, interior lives and lack of physical co-ordination. No longer. Nerds are now welcome in the coolest quarters. They are rappers, television stars and centrefolds. Andrew Denton's new game show, Randling, is promoted as a ''joust on the battlefield of language''. Australian teenagers tattoo Nintendo logos on their biceps.

At the TEDx conference in Sydney next week, academics can expect to be wolf-whistled after making speeches about robotics and environmental science. ''They are a bit like rock stars,'' says Remo Giuffre, who brought the conference to Australia in 2010. Speakers at this year's event include a linguist, a robotics engineer, an environmental historian and an astronomer. The crowd, Giuffre says, will be young and hip.

Why have nerds become so sexy? Social scientists say dorks are thriving because lives are now lived online. Economists figure geeks can amass fabulous wealth in a digital economy. Futurists reckon dweebs could become even more powerful as the human brain evolves outside the body.

Australia's appreciation of nerds is still catching up to international standards. For years, Americans have enjoyed ''Nerdlesque'', an increasingly popular genre of burlesque in which dancers perform stripteases dressed as Star Trek characters. Australian nerds were relieved this year when the organisers of Star Wars Burlesque: The Empire Strips Back embarked on a national tour.

Global nerds climbed even sexier heights when the fashion brand G-Star RAW hired world chess champion Magnus Carlsen to model beside Liv Tyler in a 2010 advertising campaign. Carlsen, a 21-year-old Norwegian, whose looks arguably veer closer to John Wilkes's than Brad Pitt's, appeared confused in the black-and-white photographs. Or perhaps that was his sexy look.

Most commentators suggest a bright future for nerds but others claim the trend has limits. In her 2011 book, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, Alexandra Robbins argues that while adult nerds have triumphed, life remains difficult for dorky adolescents. ''There have been surprisingly few trickle-down effects from the adult Age of the Nerd to the student world,'' Robbins writes.


Some nerds believe the whole trend is a con. They despise celebrities who, en masse, are confessing to having been nerds in high school. Tempers flared when actor Jaimie Alexander appeared on the US talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! last year to promote her adventure-fantasy movie Thor. Alexander told the audience she was ''geek squared'' and broke into an impression of the Star Wars character Chewbacca.

Blogger Vince Mancini responded with a mash-up video, ''Hot women pandering to nerds'', arranging clips of celebrities claiming to be nerdy. The video struck a chord with geeks, many of whom felt their rising status was a fraud.

One online commenter lamented: ''They pander to the nerds but give that ass to the jocks :-(''

TEDx is at Carriageworks on May 26. Applications for places in the audience have closed. For information about watching proceedings, see