What makes the spray of a skunk so
annoying? It irritates the skin, one
scientist says. Or maybe humans are
evolutionarily programmed to respond
to its stink, reminiscent of rotten meat
or caves low on oxygen. Then again,
some people like the scent — so perhaps
its repulsiveness is something learned,
with bad situations.
No one really knows.
In their new book,
radio science journalism veterans Palca (a
member of the board
of Society for Science
& the Public, which
publishes Science News) and Lichtman
roam the landscape of human annoyance. Like 18th century naturalists, they
collect specimens of the sights, sounds
and smells that drive folks crazy: nails
on chalkboards, public cell phone chats,
chili peppers, insects, insults, dreams,
sirens and spouses. The authors are
joined by psychologists, neuroscientists,
screenwriters and philosophers speculating about the root causes of irritation.
“Part of the recipe for what makes
something annoying seems to be its level
of unpredictability,” the authors write.
Lack of control also seems to play a role.
Even animals get annoyed, they note,
from stickleback fish fuming over the
color red to mice genetically engineered
to be the angriest rodents on the planet.
This grab bag of colorful anecdotes
is tied together in the end with an
argument that because annoyances
transcend reason, any strategy to overcome them is doomed to fail. But it’s a
lot of ground to cover in less than 300
pages, and you may finish the book with
more questions than answers.
If you find that annoying, at least
after reading this book you may have
some idea why. — Devin Po well
John Wiley & Sons, 2011, 272 p., $25.95.
The Dance of
Air & Sea
Arnold H. Taylor
explores the connect-
edness of the seas,
atmosphere and weather, with impli-
cations for climate change. Oxford
Univ. Press, 2011, 288 p., $29.95.
This travel yarn is set
in the rugged regions
of Earth, following per-
mafrost scientist Kenji
Yoshikawa as he traverses the frozen
Arctic. Univ. of Alaska Press, 2011,
188 p., $22.95.
How to Order To order these books or others,
visit www.sciencenews.org/bookshelf. A click on
a book’s title will transfer you to Amazon.com.
Sales generated through these links contribute
to Society for Science & the Public’s programs
to build interest in and understanding of science.
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