A mong the many fine anniversaries in prospect this year, not the least is the 60th birthday of Murphy’s Law, alternatively — though erroneously — known as Sod’s Law or, if you’re really into this kind of thing, Finagle’s Law.
This is the commonly held perception that the world is inherently a perverse place; in other words, if something can go wrong, it will. The proverbial example of the principle is, of course, that if you drop a slice of toast, it will land buttered side down. There are countless others; people have written entire books of them and Web sites abound (including www.murphys-laws.com, to which my thanks).
The military is fond of: “The more advanced your equipment, the further you will be from civilization when it fails.” Parents will relate to: “No child ever throws up in the toilet.” Drivers will appreciate: “The other lane is always faster.” Shoppers will relate to: “The simpler and quicker your transaction, the more complex and time-consuming the transaction of the person in front of you in the queue.”
We can all enjoy: “The paper is strongest along the perforated line,” “You always find something in the last place you look” (a necessary corollary of which is: “You will never find something in the last place you look but in the first place, where you did not see it first time around”) and (my personal favorite) “Any foreign body in your shoe will invariably work itself into the position where it causes most discomfort.”
It is worth noting that there is no point disputing Murphy’s Law (ML). It is both correct and self-proving, as can be shown by the following: ML states that if anything can go wrong, it will. ML itself can therefore go wrong. If ML can go wrong, then things can sometimes go right. We know from experience that things do sometimes go right. Ergo, ML can go wrong. Ergo, ML is correct and self-proving.
There is, however, some dispute about its precise origin. The principle it embodies has obviously existed since the dawn of mankind, and dedicated researchers from the American Dialect Society have found it described in print as early as 1877. But according to a fascinating series of articles by one Nick T Spark in the Annals of Improbable Research, there can be little doubt that Murphy’s Law as we now know it is named after Edward A. Murphy Jr, a test engineer for the McDonnell Douglas aerospace manufacturer during a series of G-force experiments carried out in 1949 by the US air force to assess the tolerance of the human body to acceleration.
One experiment apparently involved a set of 16 sensors attached to the subject’s body. These could be mounted in one of two ways, and one of Murphy’s assistants installed all of them the wrong way round, resulting in a zero reading. According to Robert Murphy, Edward’s son, the words his father uttered at the time were along the lines of: “If there’s more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.”
This we might term the original Murphy’s Law. However George Nichols, another engineer present at the experiment, recalls the phrase as: “If that guy has any way of making a mistake, he will,” a rather cruel jibe later more kindly condensed by the McDonnell Douglas team to: “If it can happen, it will happen.” Major John Paul Stapp, the subject of the experiment, then reportedly summed up the newly coined law at a press conference some days later as: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”