Murphy's law

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Murphy's law is an adage or epigram that is typically stated as: "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong".

Contents

History

The perceived perversity of the universe has long been a subject of comment, and precursors to the modern version of Murphy's law are not hard to find. Recent significant research in this area has been conducted by members of the American Dialect Society. ADS member Stephen Goranson has found a version of the law, not yet generalized or bearing that name, in a report by Alfred Holt at an 1877 meeting of an engineering society:

It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong sooner or later, so it is not to be wondered that owners prefer the safe to the scientific.... Sufficient stress can hardly be laid on the advantages of simplicity. The human factor cannot be safely neglected in planning machinery. If attention is to be obtained, the engine must be such that the engineer will be disposed to attend to it.[1]

American Dialect Society member Bill Mullins has found a slightly broader version of the aphorism in reference to stage magic. The British stage magician Nevil Maskelyne wrote in 1908:

It is an experience common to all men to find that, on any special occasion, such as the production of a magical effect for the first time in public, everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Whether we must attribute this to the malignity of matter or to the total depravity of inanimate things, whether the exciting cause is hurry, worry, or what not, the fact remains.[2]

The contemporary form of Murphy's law goes back as far as 1952, as an epigraph to a mountaineering book by Jack Sack, who described it as an "ancient mountaineering adage":

Anything that can possibly go wrong, does.[3]

Fred R. Shapiro, the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, has shown that in 1952 the adage was called "Murphy's law" in a book by Anne Roe, quoting an unnamed physicist:

he described [it] as "Murphy's law or the fourth law of thermodynamics" (actually there were only three last I heard) which states: "If anything can go wrong, it will."[4]

In May 1951, in Genetic Psychology Monographs volume 43, page 204, Anne Roe gives a transcript of an interview (part of a Thematic Apperception Test, asking impressions on a photograph) with Theoretical Physicist number 3: "...As for himself he realized that this was the inexorable working of the second law of the thermodynamics which stated Murphy's law ‘If anything can go wrong it will’." Anne Roe's papers are in the American Philosophical Society archives in Philadelphia; those records (as noted by Stephen Goranson on the American Dialect Society list 12/31/2008) identify the interviewed physicist as Howard Percy "Bob" Robertson (1903–1961). Robertson's papers are at the Caltech archives; there, in a letter Robertson offers Roe an interview within the first three months of 1949 (as noted by Goranson on American Dialect Society list 5/9/2009). The Robertson interview apparently predated the Muroc scenario said by Nick Spark (American Aviation Historical Society Journal 48 (2003) p. 169) to have occurred in or after June, 1949.

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