Annoying : The Science of What Bug us by Joe Palca & Flora Lichtman (2011) was one of my favorite books so far this year (I know I read it in Feb but I bought it when it came out last year and never finished it so I came back to it for my science month).

Two stories in the book stood out for me and I must point them out for this review.  There is this thing called the “annoy-a-tron” it can bought at thinkgeek.com.  “It is a small piece of circuit board, the size of a quarter; it has a speaker and a magnet.  It generates a short beep at random intervals every few minutes.  Given it’s size and the short duration of the beep, figuring out where the noise is coming from is extremely difficult.  Because the noise is soft, you’re not quite sure you heard it.  Because the noise is random, you can’t predict when it will occur” (pg.19).  I think the concept is hilarious to begin with.  I read on; they reprint a letter from a customer who had purchased said toy and used it in his office he writes “I have watched this simple device transform a (until – now) mild-mannered colleague into a spitting, cussing, paranoid lunatic” (pg. 21).  I practically peed myself when I read this.

The last chapter of the book regaled this tale : A woman sitting in the upper decks of a NY theater watching Jude Law perform Hamlet.  A patron behind her began to unwrap a package of Twizzlers.  “Every Twizzlers extraction prompted her to whip her head around and shoot icy glares.  Then two people nearby slid a box of Good & Plenty out of a backpack.  Even the most gingerly shake of the carton produced a loud sigh from the women.  Yet it was the Goobers at stage right that sent the lady over the edge.  without sugar-coating it, she went nuts, “Stop Eating.”  It was a whisper-yell, accompanied by a little fist bang on the armrest – but it was loud enough so that heads turned, up and down the aisle (pg. 160).  If anyone reading this knows your friendly neighborhood CCtheProfessor, you know that story very well could be about me!

So we have incessant beeps and the crackle and shakes of candy wrappers and boxes during Broadway shows.  Both incredibly annoying things, but why?  The two authors, not scientist, but NPR reporters, try to delve into our cortex’s to find out.  Now they point out that there is no existing science of what annoys us; the closest thing seems to be anger studies and behaviorism.  The book covers things from why one way cell phone conversations can be so irritating [generally we are too busy trying to think of what comes next in a conversation that one way cell phone calls take that away from us (among other things), what is the most annoying sound [scraping slate with a garden tool wins most unpleasant sound in one study, followed by rubbing two pieces of Styrofoam together], how some people can deal with spicy foods and why other may not be able to deal with it as much, to whether some of these annoyances can be determined by the synapses in our brains.

I found this book to be so enlightening, even though there was not a lot of definiteness.  I do not think that there are no answers to these questions, but that wasn’t this books aim.  They covered a lot of ground and to sell enough books no one is going to publish the test and retest journal articles for each study.

In the end, not only does this book run a wonderful gambit of interesting science tidbits that do in fact have tons to do with what grates at us in our daily lives, but it also gives some useful insight to how one (like myself) may try to deal with the many things that annoys daily.

Highly recommended. 

 

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