Monday, June 25, 2007

Recursive Murphism

O'Toole's Commentary on Murphy's Law: Murphy was an optimist.

A few months ago, I wrote about Murphy's Law in the other blog.

I don't think I've ever managed to cram three links into a short sentence before. Pardon me while I marvel.

Okay, back to Murphy's Law. As everyone knows, Murphy's Law states: If anything can go wrong, it will. This is one of those truths that is so fundamental, you figure it's carved into a monument built during the Second Dynasty in Egypt. It may well be, but it turns out that the original statement of the law was provided in the late 1940's by Captain Ed Murphy, a West Point graduate, who was a developmental engineer. As detailed in the earlier article, after the failure of a strain gage rig to operate properly, Captain Murphy is said to have blamed it on a technician, with the words, "If there is any way to do it wrong, he will." Later, at a press conference, another officer worked the words around to the form we recognize today and identified the phrase as "Murphy's Law."

As far as it goes, that's reasonably accurate. But, as I found out today, there is a whole lot more to the story. I was browsing around the Annals of Improbable Research, a site which I've mentioned before in connection with the Ig Nobel "awards" they issue each year. In looking at the classic articles, I noticed one entitled, "
The Fastest Man on Earth (The Birth of Murphy's Law)". The article, by Nick T. Spark, goes into exquisite detail about Ed Murphy, the testing that went on at Muroc, and what exactly was said by whom when.

I'm not going to rehash Mr. Spark's article, because it's very long, and he does a better job at it than I do. But I'll share some tidbits just to whet your interest.
  • The MX981 project I mentioned in my other article involved rocket sled testing, which I learned now was more about deceleration than acceleration.

  • The sled was called "The Gee Whiz."

  • The guy whose face is getting rearranged all over his skull during the sled ride films we've all seen is Captain John Paul Stapp. You know the film footage; it's been in every program about the early days of rocket testing (even though the project wasn't so much about rockets).

  • It is probably Captain Stapp who announced Murphy's Law to the world. His intent was to get his people to understand that anything can go wrong for any reason. His intent was that they should be thorough and constantly double-checking themselves and each other.

  • Despite Mr. Spark's best efforts, interviewing Ed Murphy's son, David Hill, who was on the project, and even Chuck Yeager, no one seems to be exactly sure what words Captain Murphy actually uttered. Even Captain Murphy, whose voice was on a tape of an interview he did thirty years later, wasn't sure.
What was most amusing was that, according to Mr. Spark, Murphy's Law was so universal that it even seemed to apply to the creation of the law itself and his own investigation of how the law came to be. In other words, Murphy's Law applies to Murphy's Law.

Now that's a fundamental law of nature.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I worked on the sled tests at Holloman AFB, NM in the 50's. Col. Stapp should be given the credit for Murphy';s Law. Sometime after Murphy mused that if someone could do something wrong they would, Stapp held a press conference and discussing a firing he put the law into several sentences using highly technical terms, crediting Murphy. He did it with tongue firmly in cheek. That was the birth of the law. The reporters proclaimed it in to the world.