What Is Murphy’s Law? How does It Work?

“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” is a phrase you most likely have heard at least once, it’s also likely that you’re aware of its relevance to Murphy’s Law. But what exactly does it mean, and how it affects our lives? Well, the questions have no simple or easy answer.

Murphy’s law is a universal truth that can be expressed in different ways. One of the best examples to easily understand the extent of Murphy’s law is the traffic jam.

While waiting in your lane in a mile-long traffic jam, you notice that cars in other lanes are moving faster than yours. So, understandably, you change lanes. But once you do that, cars in your new lane come to a dead halt. You find yourself stranded and helpless. That’s Murphy’s law.

The Origin Of Murphy’s Law

Believe it or not, the term ‘Murphy’s law’ originated at the Edwards Air Force Base in the late 1940s. The credit goes to Edward Murphy, an engineer in the Air Force, and Dr. John Stapp, a flight surgeon and a U.S Army Captain at that time.

John StappJohn Stapp rides a rocket sled at Edwards Air Force Base.

During his time at the base (then known as Muroc Army Air Field), Dr. Stapp headed an advanced research project called MX981. The project was intended to determine the maximum G force humans can tolerate.

The problem was, for the test to be successful, a human must perform it instead of a humanoid dummy. It was Dr. Stapp who volunteered for brutal, gut-wrenching rides.

Edward Murphy entered the act when the accuracy of the instruments used in the tests was in question. It was Murphy who came with one of his gadgets, a pair of sensors that could be placed on Stapp’s harness to measure the exact amount of G force the captain is experiencing. What happened during that day after the test led to the birth of ‘Murphy’s Law.’

The result was disappointing as the sensors produced a zero reading. It turned out that all the sensors were fitted incorrectly in the first place. When Murphy realized the mistake, he allegedly blamed his assistant for the mishap and said something like, “If there is more than one way to do something and one of those leads to a disaster, then he will do that way.” That was all it took.

Shortly after, during an interview, when Dr. Stapp was asked ‘how nobody was seriously injured during the tests, his response was because we followed ‘Murphy’s Law.’ He further explained, what he meant is that it’s important to consider all the possibilities (an interpretation of what Murphy said). If things can go wrong, it will go wrong.

As a result, the concept was popularized as Murphy’s Law.

It’s Not A New Concept

The term ‘Murphy’s law’ was conceived in the late 1950s, but the underlying concept it conveys is not new. There are various mentions of such notions in texts dating as early as the 1870s. Before Murphy’s law, it was popularly known as Sod’s law, especially in England.

A recent study conducted by the American Dialect Society has found several instances where a slightly modified version of Murphy’s Law (without the generalized name) is mentioned.

One such instance is a note written by mathematician Augustus Morgan on June 23, 1866. He wrote, “The first experiment already illustrates a truth of the theory, which is well confirmed by practice … Whatever can happen will happen if we make trials enough.”

In a speech given by British engineer Alfred Holt during a seminar in 1877, he propounded the concept from the-point-of-view of an engineer.

“It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong sooner or later… Sufficient stress can hardly be laid on the advantages of simplicity. The human factor cannot be safely neglected in planning machinery.”

There Are Many Similar Laws

traffic jamA traffic jam | Wikimedia Commons

Since the incident at Edwards Air Force Base, which gave birth to, what we now know as Murphy’s law, many intelligent individuals have developed their own rules that capture universal truths. Some of them are a variation of Murphy’s law and have become popular, while some are lesser-known. Below is a list of few such observations.

  • Ettore’s Observation – The other line always moves faster.
  • Peter Principle – In a hierarchy, people get promoted until they are no longer competent.
  • Issawi’s Law of Progress – Things get gradually worse. A shortcut is the longest distance between two points.
  • Barth’s Distinction – There are two types of people; those who divide everyone into groups and those who don’t.
  • Action’s Law – Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
  • Muphry’s Law – (A deliberate misspelling of ‘Murphy’s law’). If you criticize editing or proofreading, there will be some kind of error in what you have written.

These phrases, or maxims, explains logically valid ‘truths’ in an easily understandable language. Nonetheless, Murphy’s law remains the most popular of all maxims.

In many instances, the law is even stated as a form of the second law of thermodynamics (transfer or conversion of energy is irreversible) as they both anticipate a disorganized state of things.

What Makes Murphy’s Law So Fascinating?

People find Murphy’s law interesting not because of some great, mysterious ability it possesses but because of the unpredictable nature of the universe itself. It’s us, humans, who make Murphy’s law so relevant.

It’s in human nature that we expect things to go according to our desires. When it does, we tend to give less thought about it; only when things go wrong, we look for excuses.

For example, think about commuting to work. After reaching office, or any destination for that matter, how many times have you given a real thought about finally reaching safety and on time? Possibly not much. However, when you’re caught in an accident, you likely wonder why something terrible has happened to you.

Murphy’s law makes use of the laws of probability (odds of something happening) to make itself relevant. It also exploits the human tendency to overlook the positive and hang on to the negative.

Read: 50 Shades of Computer Programming Laws

The Appeal To Murphy’s Law: Fatalism VS Free Will

As stated, Murphy’s law is a universal concept that dwells on probability and human nature, but the real reason behind the appeal to Murphy’s law is perhaps fatalism.

Fatalism state that we are eternally bound by fate or destiny, whatever you call it. Things that happen because of our actions are unavoidable. The so-called ‘Idle Argument‘ is a popular justification for fatalism.

The concept of fatalism is the opposite of free will. As the name suggests, ‘free will’ is the ability of sentient beings to choose from different possible courses of action.

Fatalism vs free willTaxonomy of free will and fatalism

On the one hand, the law tells us that if we do something, there is a fifty percent chance we’ll do it wrong. But at the same time, those actions are caused by our own choices. While on the other hand, it states that we are powerless and bound by fate. Then perhaps Murphy’s law is a result of a struggle between free will and fatalism.

While talking about Murphy’s law, the only thing that comes to mind is that ‘if anything can go wrong, it will.’ However, we almost always forget about other important factors.

It’s Often Misinterpreted

It is often that Murphy’s law is taken negatively, but it could be seen as a means to mastery. While answering the question in the press conference, Dr. Stapp summarized Murphy’s alleged words that it’s essential to consider every single possibility before acting on something. It’s an affirmation that any possible error can be avoided by careful planning.

Criticism of Murphy’s Law

While discussing Murphy’s law, British author Richard Dawkins argued that such laws are nonsense as they call for inert entities to have their own desires and react according to them as well.

Read: 9 Laws of Technology That Changed the World

Furthermore, he explained that certain events happen randomly but come into attention when they become bothersome. For instance, he mentioned how aircraft frequents the sky, but it only noticed when the load noise hinders filming or important calls.

David Hand, professor of mathematics and senior researcher at Imperial College London, argues that Murphy’s law, in essence, is similar to the law of truly large numbers. The law can eventually predict the events anticipated by Murphy’s law.

Written by
Bipro Das

Biprojit has been a staff writer at RankRed since 2015. He mainly focuses on game-changing inventions but also covers general science with a particular interest in astronomy. His domain extends to mobile apps and knows a thing or two about finance. Biprojit has a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Delhi, majoring in Geography.

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