The Laws of Life 5

A law of Murphy. One of many.

Murphy’s Law

“If anything can go wrong, it will.” This is the law named after aerospace engineer Edward Aloysius Murphy, Jr. (1918-1990). It is the law which encapsulates the seemingly chaotic nature of inanimate objects in the popular imagination. That wasn’t how Murphy intended to have his law interpreted. As an aerospace designer specializing in safety-critical systems, he invoked it as a philosophy of defensive design against worst-case scenarios for making durable, robust systems.

finagle’s law

Despite this, Murphy’s law has spawned many satirical and jocular interpretations over the decades. There was Finagle’s Law, for example. While there was no one named Finagle behind the law’s name, science fiction editor John W. Campbell, Jr. (1910-1971) used the law repeatedly in his commentaries. The law is a slight extension of Murphy’s law: “If anything can go wrong, it will — at the worst possible moment.” This is also often referred to as Sod’s corollary to Murphy’s Law. Not sure who “Sod” is.


There is Resistentialism, a jocular theory which states that inanimate objects have a “spiteful character”, and they exhibit a high degree of malice towards humans. This is probably well-known to anyone who has spilled coffee on themselves.

hanlon’s (heinlein’s ?) razor

As an antidote to the nutty Resistentialistic theories involving objects with wills of their own, there is Hanlon’s Razor, which reminds us to “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” “Hanlon” is probably a corruption of “Heinlein”. Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, who wrote in a novelĀ Logic of Empire in 1941: “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity”. It turns out that it can be attributed to someone named Hanlon, however. A fellow named Robert J. Hanlon of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

I invoke something close to Hanlon’s Razor whenever I can’t find something I am looking for. Rather than thinking “someone stole it” or “someone moved it”, or “it grew legs and walked away”, I find it entirely adequate to think that I have misplaced it and it will turn up, and it usually does.

Variations on Murphy’s law

  • When you attempt to fix a minor malfunction you will cause a major malfunction.
  • It’s on the other side. This can be either Preudhomme’s Law of Window Cleaning, or the Fant Law of Searching for Keys in Your Pocket.
  • Lost articles will only show up once you replace it. This is seen by some as a confirmation of objects that grow legs and walk away, since once they “know” I replaced it, they walk right back into view.
  • The cost of the repair to a broken item is in direct proportion to its original cost. And the cheap, crappy stuff you have lasts forever.
  • Enough research will tend to support your theory. I am sure you will find a source somewhere that says inanimate objects have wills and intentions, and can grow legs. Somewhere.
  • Cargill’s 90-90 rule of software programming:The first 90% of the software project takes 90% of the time. The last 10% takes the other 90%. Where did the other 90% come from? Yeah, that’s kind of the point. And just in case you were wondering, they weren’t referring to 90% of the remaining 10%. This one was attributed to Tom Cargill of Bell labs, as to the tendency of projects to appear to meet deadlines, until they don’t.
  • Logic allows us to arrive at the wrong conclusion without being ashamed.
  • When all else fails, read the instructions.