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Polymath Alert!

Posted by Joshua Glenn  October 4, 2012 01:22 PM

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Debbie Chachra (Debcha, on Twitter) is a material scientist and associate professor at the 10-year-old Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass. Also, for the past year she has owned and operated an oddly addictive tumblr called "Daily Idioms, Annotated."

Here, for example, is the September 26 entry, in its entirety: "howdah pistol, lithopanspermia, sonic maturation, heart tap, chaos terrain, self-flaying skin." Here is the Oct. 1 entry: "skin name, transient electronics, pharyngeal jaw, gota fría, apophallation, shearing layers." Each word or phrase is linked to a webpage. "Suicide door" takes you here. "Howdah pistol" takes you here. Click here to see the tumblr's archive.

Debcha will be in New York this month to talk about her Daily Idioms project at a conference. I asked her a few questions, via email.

BRAINIAC: What is Daily Idioms about?

CHACHRA: On one level, Daily Idioms is just about the incongruous beauty of language. Many of the idioms are short phrases where there’s some dissonance between the words (‘entangled diamonds’), or there’s some interesting clue to the meaning buried in the word (‘apophallation’), or they’re just weird-sounding (‘prampting’). My favorites are the ones where the words sound like something completely different from what they are (like ‘sarcastic fringehead,’ which is actually a fish).

BRAINIAC: You say "on one level" — so what's the project about on another level?

CHACHRA: After I started linking to sources and hearing back from readers, I realized that Daily Idioms is mostly about exposing people to entirely new concepts and ideas. The fundamental affordance of the Internet is these lateral moves. If you read a textbook, it moves you straight through the material, getting deeper and more complicated as you go. But if you’re learning about something on the Internet, it’s easy to follow links and go sideways into different areas. The Daily Idioms are just the sideways links.

BRAINIAC: So where do you find these curiosities?

CHACHRA: A few of them are sent to me by readers, but most of them I just come across in my daily life or online reading. My professional background is weirdly multidisciplinary—engineering, science, and education; physics, biology, design; and a bunch more. So what I’m exposed to reflects both what I know about and what I’m interested in knowing about. I’ve come to think that all human knowledge is fractal – for any topic, the edges go on (nearly) forever. We spend most of our working lives near the center, but most of the Daily Idioms are about dropping people out at the weird fringes.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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