Friday, August 11, 2006

Murphology

Murphy's Law: If anything can go wrong, it will.
Barton's Amendment: ... and even if it can't, it might ~ A. J. Barton

I have an odd collection of mental trivia. For example, I know the name of the Lone Ranger's nephew's horse. Most people don't even know he had a nephew. I know how a baseball team can, in one inning, collect three triples, two singles, a double and two stolen bases yet not score a run (regular baseball rules apply). I also happen to know who Murphy is, thanks to Paul Dickson's “The Official Rules.”

I've had a copy of Dickson's book for about 25 years, and it's well-worn and filled with bookmarks. It's a collection of sayings that humorously but accurately describe how the world works. For example, there's Commoner's Three Laws of Ecology:
  1. No action is without side effects;
  2. Nothing ever goes away;
  3. There is no free lunch.
Or there's Kitman's Law, as valid today as it was in 1967 when it was created: “Pure drivel tends to drive ordinary drivel off the TV screen.”

But, I was going to talk of Murphy's Law. Everyone knows this as “if anything can go wrong, it will.” There also listings of other laws attributed to Murphy, such as:
  • Nothing is as simple as it seems.
  • If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will go wrong first will be the one that will do the most damage.
  • Left to themselves, all things go from bad to worse.
And, that all-time classic:
  • Mother Nature is a bitch.
Murphy has a lesser known relative known as Finagle. Finagle's Laws were compiled by John Campbell, editor of “Astounding Science Fiction” (later known as the excellent “Analog”) after he issued a call to readers to help him gather these “unwritten laws of science,” as Dickson puts it. Finagle's basic law is, “If anything can go wrong in an experiment, it will.” As you can see, it's merely a specialized version of Murphy's Law. But it does have it's own corollaries, such as:
The Law of the Too, Too, Solid Point – In any collection of data the figure that is most obviously correct – beyond all need of correcting – is the mistake.
Honest, the Lone Ranger had a nephew. Try to stay focused.

Most of the time, characters like Murphy are mythical blends of real people and fantasy characters, who have no corporeal existence. But, as Dickson records, it turns out that Murphy was a living, breathing person. And, rather than being some contemporary of Shakespeare, he turns out to be a twentieth century creature. The identity of this legendary philosopher was revealed by one Jack Smith, who wrote for the LA Times. He received a letter in 1977 from George E. Nichols who worked at the Pasadena Jet Propulsion Laboratory (the fine folks who gave us the Mars Rovers, although a lot later).


Mr. Nichols, it seems was involved with Air Force Project MX981 during the late 1940's. I don't know what the MX981 was, and it's not crucial to the story, other than to know it was complicated and involved figuring out what happened to people in aircraft that were subject to high deceleration (which, frankly, is not a good thing to happen to an airplane). At one point, a technican incorrectly wired a strain gauge bridge which caused a strap transducer to malfunction. I'm sure you've done the same thing yourself. At any rate, a development engineer, realizing what had happened, said of the technician, in frustration, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he will.” The engineer's name was Captain Ed Murphy.

Honest.

According to Nichols, the law was mentioned at a press conference some time later, and the rest, as they say, is history. Dickson points out Ed Murphy is known to have existed; he graduated from West Point in 1940. Also, he says that Mr. Nichols' letter also appeared in a book called “Murphy's Law” by Arthur Block, so it also appears the Mr. Nichol's is a real person as well.

Somehow, knowing that there's a real Murphy is comforting. The Law wasn't a construct of some ad agency brainstorming session, looking for something to stick on cocktail napkins. It was a very real utterance applying to a very real situation. Like all great principles, it has been expanded upon, but its universal truth remains unblemished, as we see on a near daily basis.

The horse's name was Victor.

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