Issue 7 - February 2001
Readers of The Sum can now take part in the biggest-ever study of Murphy's Law - "If something can go wrong, it will". Performed by thousands of students across the country, experiments unveiled in this issue of The Sum should finally reveal the truth behind the most notorious version of the law: "If toast can land butter-side down, it will do".
Devised by physicist Robert Matthews ( www.ncrg.aston.ac.uk/People/index.html ) of Aston University, Birmingham - the world's leading authority on Murphy's Law and Lurpak , The Butter People - the experiments should also expose the cause of this notorious breakfast-time phenomenon - and even ways of beating it.
Tesco SchoolNet set the current world record in February 2000. A total of 132,010 pupils and 16,423 schools took part in a project which created an electronic Doomsday Book for the 21st century.
Murphy - the man behind the "myth"
While many people dismiss Murphy's Law as a silly urban myth, there's no doubt that Murphy himself really existed. During the late 1940s, Edward A. Murphy (1918 - 1990) was research and development officer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. In 1949, Murphy took part in Air Force Project MX 981, set up to investigate the effects of rapid deceleration of humans.
To record the effects on the volunteers who took part, Murphy devised a harness carrying strain gauges to measure the forces generated in each run. During one such run, everything seemed to go well - but the harness had failed to record any data. Murphy was called in, and discovered that every single strain gauge had been wired up incorrectly. He told his colleagues that this highlighted a very important rule that all engineers should bear in mind: if there are two ways of doing something, and one of them can lead to disaster, you should assume that's the way it will be done.
Murphy wanted his rueful observation to be seen as a useful design principle. Instead, at a press conference held to describe the results of the project, a journalist turned Murphy's Law into a joke about life in general: "If something can go wrong, it will go wrong".
Murphy wasn't very happy about how the media had twisted the meaning of his very sensible design principle - but there wasn't much he could do. And of course, by losing control over his principle, Murphy himself became a victim of his very own law!
Ever since, Murphy's Law has been blamed for a host of everyday annoyances, from why our queue in the supermarket is so often the slowest-moving, to why it usually rains when we decide to leave our umbrella at home. Most scientists regard it as silly nonsense. But one who doesn't is Robert Matthews. Since the mid-1990s, he has discovered that many cases of Murphy's Law really can be explained by serious scientific principles.
One such example - that toast usually lands on the floor butter-side down - is now the subject of The Sum's pioneering experiments. But according to Robert, there are many other examples of Murphy's Law at work in the universe.
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