Q: Is Murphy’s law real?

Physicist: The mathematical statement of Murphy’s Law, as used in scientific communities, is tremendously complex.  But the common form, “everything that can go wrong will”, is fairly accurate and more than sufficient for most applications.

The short answer is: yes, Murphy’s Law is real.  There are a lot of basic logical reasons for this.  For example; nothing lasts forever, so eventually every part of every machine will eventually break down.  Or, because being in traffic involves spending more time getting from place to place, you can expect to spend disproportionately more time in traffic than not.  But, as you’ve no doubt noticed, using logic and random chance alone it’s impossible to explain away the preponderance of horrible happenstances that show up seemingly without pause, everywhere, at all times.

“Coincidences” like that are a strong indication that a physical law is in play.  We can clearly see that Murphy’s law is both real, and unfairly applied to people colloquially known as “clumsy”.  Robert Oppenheimer, in addition to some entirely forgettable work he did in physics, pioneered research into Murphy’s law by studying his own unfortunate condition.  Bob’s affliction was first brought to the attention of his colleges when it was noticed that when he was in the lab, everyone’s muffins and buttered scones were 42% more likely to land upside-down.  Even sandwiches with particularly binding peanut-butter were more likely to open on the way down.

(Left) Murphy, the discoverer of "Murphy's Law" shown here after a flossing incident.  (Right)

(Left) Wilhelm Murphy, the discoverer of Murphy’s Law, shown here suffering from complications after a gum-chewing incident. (Right) Oppenheimer, extended and modernized our knowledge of Murphy’s Law.  This is the only known picture of Oppenheimer with his eyes open.

Oppenheimer, after he was politely asked not to work in the laboratories, made several starling discoveries such as the fact that Murphy’s Law is “recursive”, “pessimistically optimal”, and “robustly unfair”.  The recursive nature of the Law is one of the more obvious.  It says, in effect, that Murphy’s Law can’t be out-smarted.  For example, washing you car is almost certain to make it rain. However if your intention is to make rain, then washing your car will probably just make someone slip and fall.

Oppenheimer was involved in one of the better examples of Murphy Recursion.  During a celebration of his accomplishments and “clumsiness”, some of his fellow scientists constructed a lever attached to a prop chandelier, such that when Oppenheimer walked in and inevitably pulled the lever the chandelier would drop.  However, they forgot to take into account the recursive nature of Murphy’s Law, and the lever didn’t work.  Of course, had they tried to take Murphy Recursion into account, something else would have gone wrong.

Many people known to be “unlucky” or “followed by a black cloud of misfortune” are the sad victims of the fact that Murphy’s Law is demonstrably unfair.  This is the essential reason behind why computer problems only exist until you try to show someone else.  The range of “what can go wrong” varies wildly from person to person.  For Roy Sullivan (for example) being struck by lightning is something that can go wrong (and did go wrong seven times).  Despite specifically trying to avoid storms and clouds, he could barely leave his house without some lightning bolt setting him on fire.

So, Murphy’s Law is certainly very real, and can even be measured qualitatively.  However, it can’t be anticipated or taken into account.  We can only wait for terrible, unfortunate things to happen, and hope that they won’t be too bad.

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7 Responses to Q: Is Murphy’s law real?

  1. Fergus Gallagher says:

    I’m sure I’ve seen Oppenheimer with a squint.

  2. Someone says:

    I was half way the article until I thought; “Wait a minute, when was this posted?” and then it struck me… lighting that is, and it made me chuckle.

  3. Slobodan Mitroivc says:

    The name of the guy after whom the law was named is captain ED (EDWARD) Murphy!

  4. Slobodan Mitroivc says:

    Of course, not on the 1st of April

  5. Bob says:

    What if I said that this law was true exactly 50% of the time? Would it still be true? Or would it just be that people remember the incidents where Murphy’s law was true more than the incidences where Murphy’s law failed? In other words- Does Murphy’s law boil down to psychology?

  6. I’M sure that Psychology has nothing to do with Physics…

  7. Jim says:

    Murphy’s law was not propounded by Murphy, but rather by another man with the same name.

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