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Murphy’s Law

On Thursday 2 October 2003, the thirteenth annual Ig Nobel Prize awards were announced. The Ig Nobels are a tongue-in-cheek alternative to the real Nobel Prizes. They celebrate “all that is bizarre, weird and improbable in real-life scientific research” and which honour those whose achievements “cannot or should not be reproduced”. The awards are an eclectic bunch that have commemorated the Norwegian biologists who studied the effects of garlic and sour cream on the appetite of leeches, an amateur scientist who discovered ten-mile-high buildings on the back of the moon, the Scottish doctors who researched the collapse of toilets in Glasgow, and (getting nearer to this newsletter’s concerns), the man who founded the Apostrophe Protection Society.

One of this year’s ten awards went to “the late John Paul Stapp, the late Edward A Murphy, Jr., and George Nichols, for jointly giving birth in 1949 to Murphy’s Law”. Now there’s an interesting citation. Why should it require three men to invent Murphy’s Law, even if one of them was indeed named Murphy?

It’s a long story. Cut to the bare bones the “official” version is this: in 1949, Captain Murphy was working on experiments at Edwards Air Force Base in California to learn how much sudden deceleration a person could stand in a crash; these used human volunteers and dummies strapped to a rocket-propelled sledge. Murphy had designed transducers for the sledge, but after John Paul Stapp, an Air Force doctor, had been subjected to about 35G in one test, Murphy found that a technician had wired them in backwards and they hadn’t given any readings. Either Stapp or Murphy (the accounts vary) is then supposed to have said something along the lines of “If there are two or more ways to do something and one of those results in a catastrophe, then someone will do it that way”. The project engineer working on the tests, George E Nichols, noted this among a collection of “laws” he had been amassing and named it after Murphy.

This story has been retold many times and a four-part article on the background to it appeared in the Ig Nobel’s journal, the Annals of Improbable Research. There’s nothing new about the famous Law in itself, of course. The form in which it is now usually quoted, “If something can go wrong, it will”, has long been known to engineers as an awful warning that all possible causes of misunderstanding among workers on a project must be eliminated if disaster is to be prevented (we British have our own version, Sod’s Law).

Not everybody believes the official line, which makes the award of an Ig Nobel for it somewhat provocative, even 54 years after the supposed event. Barry Popik of the American Dialect Society has researched it, but has found no reference in contemporary archives. The first known use of the term was in an American publication Aviation Mechanics Bulletin for 11 May 1955, in which a headline read “‘Backward’ mechanics prove Murphy’s Law”; it turned up in Scientific American and the New York Times early in the following year and from then on quickly achieved the iconic status in American life that it retains. A similar law was attributed to one O’Reilly in 1954, which might suggest an Irish joke in the making (some people still think it is one). Until the story above was told in the 1970s, nobody connected the law to the very real Captain Edward Aloysius Murphy, who wasn’t widely known. In fact, a 1962 book by seven US astronauts, We Seven, asserted that Murphy was a fictitious character in a US navy training cartoon. However, the film was made in 1957, two years after the saying’s first appearance in print, so we can rule out that origin. Others claim the eponymous Murphy dates from the 1930s, though without giving firm evidence.

Much uncertainty remains about the origin of the saying. It’s not that anyone is doubting the story told by the three men (although, as you might expect of an event remembered years later, details of their stories conflict). The problem for historians is that without an audit trail of recorded evidence it’s not possible to say for sure that the Captain Murphy of the story and the first appearance in print of Murphy’s Law are linked. It might well be, as one wag remarked, that it wasn’t Murphy, but another man of the same name.

[The doubt of the experts has since been justified, since in November 2006 researcher Bill Mullins reported the discovery of several examples in conjurors’ magazines long before Mr Murphy had even been thought of, in one case attributed to the famous magician David Devant. The earliest case is from The Magic Wand, published in London in May 1913: “There is an old saying among conjurers that it is impossible for a performer to know a trick thoroughly well until everything that can possibly go wrong with it has gone wrong — in front of an audience.” Fred Shapiro (whose Yale Book of Quotations finds that many popular sayings are older than we think) had previously found a variant of it in George Orwell’s War-time Diary for 18 May 1941: “If there is a wrong thing to do, it will be done, infallibly. One has come to believe in that as if it were a law of nature.” Another law of nature, to quote a yet more famous source, is that there’s nothing new under the sun. Can an Ig Nobel Prize, once awarded, be taken away again?]

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Page created 11 Oct 2003; Last updated 02 Dec 2006