Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Extremophiles: Word of the Day Part II

Reading the Wall Street Journal over the weekend, I came across a word I didn’t know. This happens occasionally-- the WSJ sometimes uses big words -- but this word was so utterly foreign to me I thought it was a typo. The word was chthonic, which means: of or relating to the underworld, infernal. When I'm in a vocab crisis, I run to Merriam Webster’s Word of the Day. Last year, I attempted to write a short story using a month's worth of M-W words, in order. For today's post, I tried it again, but with only two weeks' worth of words (hey, I have a day job now). It turned out to be more of an essay than a story... or a stream of consciousness... actually, I don’t know what the hell it is... but it sure was entertaining to see where it led me:

Have you ever looked closely at your computer’s keyboard? I'm doing it now. It's disconcerting to see it in the bright sunlight. You notice things. Sometimes, I wonder what I’d find under there if I removed the keys. There could be a whole colony of tiny extremophiles living off of skin flakes and potato chip oil. Creatures so frail and diaphanous that, if viewed under a microscope, there’d be nothing but innards -- there’s its digestive tract, there’s its beating heart.

But what if they were visible to the naked eye, and one of them crawled out from under the F5 key in the middle of my PowerPoint presentation? Would I shriek? Feign indifference and causally smash it between my fingers? Or would I turn my keyboard upside down, shake the rest of the critters out, and, with an effeminate moue, stomp them with my feet?

We go through life in epistemic denial of the creatures lurking beneath our field of vision. Surely you’ve heard about the mites in our sheets, or eyebrows, but what of the ones resting just under the vulnerable pulp of our fingertips -- ready to strike out with their claws? (Why do unseen creatures always have claws, or at least fangs? Is it not possible these beings are beautiful? That, having evolved unchecked in the purlieus of computer circuitry, they’ve developed brilliant colors, glass-blown siphons, or giant (relative) iridescent wings which flutter to the rhythm of our key strikes?).

Or perhaps they’re climbers -- yes, this makes more sense -- scaling the hachure of wires with otherworldly aplomb. Or maybe they’re more sophisticated then that even; maybe they use their segmented withies like cell phone antennae, tapping into our PCs, drinking our information -- one massive telecommuting workforce spread across the globe. With a billion bio-processors acting in parallel, the colony could occupy a dimension superjacent to itself; like the ultimate quantum computer, it could be everywhere and nowhere at once.

And what if an entity of such raw power and scope became lickerish? It scares me to ideate the kind of havoc it could it wreak! I’m thinking of chthonic (take that WSJ!) foes of biblical proportions – on par with Satan or Beelzebub or whatever sobriquet you prefer.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool scientist, though, and I tend not to believe in things that have never been seen. Yet, I can’t slake my appetite for stories about tiny worlds that seem even bigger than our own. And this is what I think about at my desk, after lunch, between meetings.


  1. Good stuff. I did not know many of those words. Thanks for providing the links!

  2. Very creative Bryan! Most my vocab comes from Urban dictionary hah.

  3. Now that I think about it keyboards are actually very disgusting. Thanks for reminding me. Good story!

  4. My favorite post yet! Very creative and entertaining. For using about 100 words i have never heard of in my life, you still managed to paint a very vivid picture. I feel compelled to write a song using the same exercise. Different set of words, of course...

  5. original and fun! don't know if we could successfully imitate, but we would try.

    that's how much we like this post. :-)