Professor Murphy’s Law

Yesterday wasn’t the best of days – lots of annoying things, lots of things going wrong. In the middle of it all a colleague, in commenting on one of the things that had happened, said it really was ‘Murphy’s Law’. Ah, I said, so what is Murphy’s Law. ‘Easy’, he replied: ‘Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.’ And the origins of that adage? ‘Traditional Irish’, he replied.

Well, my mother had a tea towel once with all the different variants of Murphy’s Law, and these were surrounded by shamrocks and leprechauns and other folksy Irish stuff; and maybe my colleague grew up with that tea towel also.

In fact, the Murphy of ‘Murphy’s Law’ was never found outside a thatched cottage somewhere in Mayo, but rather was Captain Edward Murphy of the US Air Force. He was an engineer, and when something particularly foolish had been done in the course of a rocket test, he is said to have remarked: ‘If there are two or more ways to do something, and one of those ways can result in a catastrophe, then someone will do it.’ By the time the results were reported by the air force, his statement had become known as ‘Murphy’s Law’, and it stuck. And very quickly new versions of it were disseminated, including the one mentioned by my friend (which in fact is the best known popular version of Murphy’s Law). My personal favourite is: ‘It is impossible to make anything foolproof, because fools are so ingenious.’

And now, according to Times Higher Education, Professor David Watson, of the Institute of Education in London, has come up with an academic version of Murphy’s Law, including such obviously correct statements as:

• The first thing a committee member says is the exact opposite of what she means (“I’d like to agree with everything the vice-chancellor has just said, but…”; or “with respect”…; or even “briefly”).
• On email, nobody ever has the last word.
• There is never enough money, but there used to be.

I would add a couple:

• Every email sent to more than one person is always read by at least one person from whom you wanted to keep it confidential.
• No meeting ever ends at the agreed time.

Any other suggestions?

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7 Comments on “Professor Murphy’s Law”

  1. pennybridged Says:

    How about “common sense isn’t always quite so common”?

  2. Vincent Says:

    If you want 100 euro coins face up and you do not tell anyone. Then half or so will end up, arse up.

  3. Iainmacl Says:

    how about:

    ‘For every blog post there’s always a vincent response’

  4. Iainmacl Says:

    yes it was intended in good humour…empirically derived law from systematic observation..

  5. John H Says:

    Doyle’s Law.
    Murphy was an optimist.

  6. cormac Says:

    It’s known as Sod’s law in Britain, and it’s very important for computer programmers, as the program has to be able to cope with even the stupidest input!

    However, the most common interpretation of Murphy’s law is that you can be sure the worst possible outcome will happen. This can be quite uncanny e.g. if you want the telephone to ring, simply pick up your violin and start to practice – the phone immediately rings, interrupting your practice session!. If you want that bus to srrive, light up a cigarette or cross the road. etc etc. Just how this happens is a great mystery to modern science, but it does!


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