The truth behind ‘Murphy’s Law’

by Jim Lee: PNT columnist

When I bought my computer about two years ago, it came with all the latest whatever-it-was stuff and was supposed to do everything this side of a landing on Neptune.

Since then I have spent far more time trying to get it to work than I have in actually doing the work it is supposed to facilitate.

No, I’m not going into high-tech exorcism this week, although that could be an intriguing topic. It’s just another example of Murphy’s Law, also known as Finagle’s Law or Sod’s Law.

“If anything can go wrong, it will.”

If this maxim isn’t custom made for those dastardly machines, where did it come from? Believe it or don’t, but there was a genuine Murphy after whom this statement is named. Would I lie to you?

According to the Edwards Air Force Base Web site, he was Capt. Edward A. Murphy. Capt. Murphy worked as an engineer (1947-49) assigned to Air Force Project MX981 at Muroc Field, now called Edwards Air Force Base.

The project used a rocket sled to determine how much sudden deceleration (g-forces) a human being could tolerate. Somebody with more guts than sense would speed down the tracks to an abrupt stop. It’s easy to see how Murphy’s Law could come out of something like that.

Actually, the “law” began as a slightly different statement. This cultural phenomenon started when Capt. Murphy got upset at a technician who wired some sensors backward prior to a test with a chimpanzee.

Murphy declared, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”

George E. Nichols, the contractor’s project manager, who kept a list of sayings that applied to his work, reworded Murphy’s statement a bit and added it to his list of “laws.”
As a matter of fact, Nichols added one of his own (Nichols’ Fourth Law): “Avoid any action with an unacceptable outcome.”

Nichols went on to become the quality control manager for NASA’s Viking mission to Mars in the 1970s.

George Nichols wasn’t the only one to get into the act.
Dr. John P. Stapp, an Air Force physician assigned to the project who rode rocket sleds, added Stapp’s Ironical Paradox: “The universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment an incredible miracle.”

Stapp later brought Murphy’s Law to the public in a press conference. It first appeared in print as Murphy’s Law in a 1955 book (Men, Rockets and Rats by Lloyd Mallon) in its present form.

Long before Murphy, the axiom probably began as a mathematical law of probabilities, something like anything that is possible will eventually occur if given enough time.
I’m far from skilled or knowledgeable in mathematics, but that inevitability makes sense to me — even though it never caught on like what we now call Murphy’s Law.

A huge number of variations have even come into existence. My favorite is “Murphy was an optimist.”

Why has something as negative as Murphy’s Law become such a popular part of our culture? Could it be a collective fear of humanity being pushed aside by unfeeling technology, such as the dominance of computers?

Have those maddening machines moved from servants to masters?

If we think about those fouled up rocket sleds, maybe these things are true, especially when we consider the First Law of Infernal Dynamics: “An object in motion will be moving in the wrong direction.”

Jim Lee is news director for KENW-FM radio. He also is an English instructor. He can be contacted at 359-2204. His e-mail:
dr_james_lee@hotmail.com