MURPHY WAS A PERFECTIONIST
As the son of the man whose name is attached to “Murphy’s law,” I want to thank you for accurately and respectfully identifying the origin of this “law” in your recent article [“The Science of Murphy’s Law,” by Robert A.J. Matthews, April]. My father was an avid reader of Scientific American, and I can assure you that were he still alive, he would have written to you himself, thanking you for a more serious discussion of Murphy’s Law than the descriptions on the posters and calendars that treat it so lightly.
Yet as interesting as the article is, I suggest that the author may have missed the point of Murphy’s Law. Matthews describes the law in terms of the probability of failure. I would suggest, however, that Murphy’s law actually refers to the CERTAINTY of failure. It is a call for determining the likely causes of failure in advance and acting to prevent a problem before it occurs. In the example of flipping toast, my father would not have stood by and watched the slice fall onto its buttered side. Instead he would have figured out a way to prevent the fall or at least ensure that the toast would fall butter-side up.
Murphy and his fellows engineers spent years testing new designs of devices related to aircraft pilot safety or crash survival when there was no room for failure (for example, they worked on supersonic jets and Apollo landing craft). They were not content to rely on probabilities for their successes. Because they knew that things left to chance would definitely fail, they went to painstaking efforts to ensure success.
EDWARD A. MURPHY III, Sausalito, California
After receiving more than 362 intact issues of Scientific American, I received the April issue – with the article on Murphy’s Law – that was not only assembled incorrectly by the printer but also damaged by the U.S. Post Office during delivery. My teenage daughter is taking this magazine into her science class to talk about Murphy’s Law. The condition of this issue is an excellent example for her presentation.
BRAD WHITNEY, Anaheim, California
(Scientific American, August 1997)
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