Thursday, January 25, 2007

Cover those ears, folks. The worst sound on the planet has now been identified, and it’s neither a dentist’s drill, a cell phone nor a filibustering lawmaker.

It’s that guttural heave and splat of someone vomiting, said Trevor Cox, a British acoustical engineer who has gauged people’s reactions to assorted sounds, human and otherwise.

More than 1 million people listened to sound clips of screaming babies, seasick violins and nauseous moments, then ranked them according to “horribleness,” said Mr. Cox, who released his findings yesterday.

Retching drew top honors, followed by the distinctive scream of microphone feedback, a group of howling babies and the heavy-duty squeal of train wheels. Rounding out the top 10 was the piercing squeak of a rusty seesaw, the dissonant screech of bad fiddle playing, the curt sound of flatulence, a single wailing baby, a shrill argument and, last but not least, the disquieting hum of faulty electrical connections.

“I’m driven by a scientific curiosity about why people shudder at certain sounds and not at others,” said Mr. Cox, a professor of acoustical engineering at Salford University in Manchester.

He managed to parlay his curiosity into funding from the British government, which awarded him an undisclosed sum to create a bank of more than 30 sounds, an online voting system, a Web site, a museum exhibit and a lecture titled “Beautiful Music, Horrible Sounds,” delivered last fall at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

Mr. Cox signed on with the British Broadcasting Corp. to cover noise phenomenon and created a trio of obnoxious cell-phone ring tones — screaming babies, sour violin, intestinal distress — for the harmony-challenged. He also has been applied to Guinness World Records as the creator of Earth’s largest “whoopee cushion,” which is brilliant pink and the size of a mattress.

There’s serious science in it, Mr. Cox insists. He went so far as to hire an actor to simulate groaning regurgitation — coupled with the revolting plop of baked beans into an actual commode. The finished product stimulates survival reflexes.

“We are pre-programmed to be repulsed by horrible things such as vomiting, as it is fundamental to staying alive to avoid the nasty stuff,” Mr. Cox explained.

But the revulsion factor varies. The survey found that female respondents were more sensitive to all that whining and screaming than their male counterparts.

“This may be because women play a role in protecting themselves and their offspring from attack,” Mr. Cox said.

Still, men consistently rated the sound of screaming babies among the most grating of the lot, which also included barking dogs, dentist drills, jet engines, assorted electronic exotica and the proverbial fingernails on a blackboard.

“It could be that females have become more habituated to the sounds of babies crying,” Mr. Cox added.

He now plans to determine the most pleasant sounds in the world, using the same methodology, theorizing that environments could be engineered to incorporate nice noise and foster good feelings among inhabitants.

“Noise significantly affects our quality of life,” Mr. Cox said.

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