Murphy's Law

By Keir Liddle

For those who are unawares Sods law basically states that “anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” The phrase it at least 168 years old and the following passage is thought to be a precursor to the modern phrase from a newspaper in Norwalk, Ohio:

I never had a slice of bread,
Particularly large and wide,
That did not fall upon the floor,
And always on the buttered side

Members of the American Dialect Society have uncovered a version of the law dating back to 1877 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

The modern phrase is attributed as coming from a mountaneering book by the pleasingly named Jack Sack in 1925:

Anything that can possibly go wrong, does

It was also in 1952 that the adage gained the Murphy moniker in a book by Anne Roe, quoting an unnamed physicist:

There were a number of particularly delightful incidents. There is, for example, the physicist who introduced me to one of my favorite “laws,” which he described 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.

Although there were competitors in 1955 it was referred to as Reillys’ law and a bold attempt by the Atomic energy Commissions Lewis Strauss to appropriate the law as his own under the slightly egotistical (or perhaps self-deprecating?) “Strauss law”. However such attempts failed and the law became most popularly known as Murphys law.

You might think thats all well and good – but surely the British (for whom things must surely go wrong more often than our friends over the pond) invented a similar thing first under the name “sods law”. Well you might be suprised to find out that in a dictionary of catchphrases: British and American it is listed as appearing in print as late as 1972.

In ‘The Times Literary Supplement’ of 19 Oct. 1973 there was a review of Richard Swinburne, ‘An Introduction to Confirmation Theory’. That review opened by saying, ‘Philosophy, like life, is subject to what is vulgarly known as Sod’s Law. In life, Sod’s Law takes the form of doors opening the wrong way, love being unrequited, and so forth.’ This provoked a correspondence; someone claimed to have written about Sod’s Law in the ‘New Statesman’ of Oct. 1970.

There was an experiment on Q.E.D. in 1993 involving sods law and toast. essentially some physicists and statisticians created an experiment (with numerous permutations of throwing buttered bread into the air and seeing where it landed – your tax dollars pounds at work eh! – butter side up (confounding sods law) or down (confirming sods law).

Some other physicist has written a paper that challenges their work, you wouldn’t think physicists has the time for such shenanigans would you?: An extract is below…

There’s a widespread suspicion among the public that toast sliding off a plate or table has a natural tendency to land butter side down, thus providing prima facie evidence for Murphy’s Law: “If something can go wrong, it will”. Most scientists, in contrast, dismiss such belief as ludicrous. Indeed, an investigation by the BBC-TV science programme Q.E.D. in 1993 claimed to have proved definitively that the whole notion was nothing but an urban myth. However, as I show in the paper, the experiments carried out by the programme were dynamically inappropriate (in that they consisted of people simply tossing buttered bread into the air – hardly common practice around the breakfast table).

Ok, so he says its a flawed experiment because the experiments are dynamically inappropriate and that when you consider the more naturalistic situation of toast sliding off a plate sods law still applies. However I feel there is a simpler way of proving sods law. The fact that the experiment didn’t work: They were trying to prove the existence of sods law scientifically and statistically yet the experiment didn’t work.

How does the law go again?

Essentially what you have here is, as far as in know coined by myself, the Sod’s law paradox (or Murphys conundrum) you can’t prove that Sod’s law exists when setting out to do so because Sod’s law will be operating as you are attempting to. Thus you can never prove or disprove sods law as for either outcome you cannot be sure that Sods law is in fact not operating and your results have not simply come about because “everything that can go wrong, has gone wrong”…

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