Nerds among us

This is my Sunday column for the July 28, 2013 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. A version of this piece aired yesterday on Northern Community Radio’s “Between You and Me.” PROGRAM NOTE: you can hear the latest Grand Rapids episode of my Great Northern Radio Show today (Sunday) from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Northern Community Radio.

Nerds among us
By Aaron J. Brown

Words meanings are in people, not a particular configuration of letters. People decide what words mean. Certain words come to evoke emotional responses by how they’re used and why.

So it is with nerds. “Nerd,” as a word, is in a moment of great transition. Twenty years ago when I was in school, it was still generally seen as an insult. Smart kids obsessed with inane details. Add in the association of being weak, romantically ineffectual and probably funny looking, well, you have the picture. I was a nerd, sure, but one who could cover in social situations. Sometimes.

A nerd on the Mesabi Iron Range faced his or her own challenges. The caste system in stereotypical suburban high schools (the kinds where one might find Molly Ringwald) didn’t quite apply here. There weren’t many rich kids. Everyone looked vaguely Finnish.

Still, the northern Minnesota culture demanded a certain amount of machismo (for boys) and benign complacency (for girls). Guns, motors and terrible relationship skills. To run afoul of this model was common, but always associated with …

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… identity issues, the likes of which could cause a person to write columns in the local newspaper for an indeterminate number of years.

How far we’ve come!

Earlier this month, the magazine “Popular Science” made a list of travel destinations for nerds. Tops on the list? Well, the top location in the nation for nerds, they say, is the neutrino lab at the 27th Level of the Soudan Underground Mine State Park right here on the Iron Range.

The word nerd, you see, is changing. It means many of the same things – smart, obsessed, etc. – but the emotional meaning has flipped. Nerds, having survived high school, began reproducing, often with each other. Some of them started Google and Apple. Never mind President Obama being the first African-American president, let’s all pause for a moment to realize he’s the first president who can do the Spock “Live Long and Prosper” hand thing from “Star Trek.” And he won’t be the last.

To some degree, the Iron Range was always a haven for nerds, even if contemporary culture has been chilly toward them. For 100 years, some of the most important people in the machinery of our society have been engineers. You want to mine iron ore? OK, so where is it? No, where is it exactly. Call the engineers. And pay them extra if you want to survive the process of digging your holes. Thus, behind the brawny imagery of mining festooned upon our cultural memory has always been a little room somewhere, full of pencils, compasses, slide rules and legions of nerds.

Sure, when early proto-nerd engineers orchestrated the digging of the Soudan Underground Mine a century ago, they did so to extract iron from the earth. They didn’t know it would one day be a perfect place to study the transit of neutrinos, dark matter, the origins of the universe and its very essence. I imagine, however, that if they had known this, they would have been very fascinated and wanted to know more.

So if you see more nerds around here in coming weeks, it could be for a few reasons. They might indeed be “new nerds,” from afar. But they may also be the nerds among us, at last free to show their true colors. Confident, they should be, in this bold new Iron Range future, where the brawn may fail, but the brain will save the day.

CORRECTION: To retain my nerd credentials I must correct the quote I used last week about technology and magic. It was originally attributed to nerd high priest Arthur C. Clarke. George Carlin used a similar but slightly different line in his comedy bit. Carlin also wrote “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV,” which includes the sentiment that you shouldn’t be angry about bad words, but rather at the people who use them for bad reasons.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (


  1. I guess I’m a nerd, married to nerd. I love to look things up and study things. Kinda strange to live HERE and not own a boat, snowmobile, jet ski, fishing license, or gun. Yet we’ve been “outdoor-sy.” I guess we probably stunted our kids.

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