If anything can go wrong, it will.

Life’s little annoyances – such as being unable to find a matching pair of socks, or taking along an umbrella that turned out to be unneeded or not taking one when it was needed – caused James Payne, a Victorian poet and satirist, to lament in 1884:

I never had a piece of toast
Particularly long and wide
But fell upon the sanded floor
And always on the buttered side.

These little annoyances acquired a ‘scientific’ name, Murphy’s law, when in 1949 Captain Edward A. Murphy Jr (1918-90) of the United States Air Force came across a gauge that had been wired wrong. He cursed the technician responsible and muttered something like, ‘If anything can go wrong, it will.’

Murphy’s law, which now has many variations, occurs too frequently to be pure chance. Haven’t you noticed that whenever you are trying to park your car along a busy road, all the empty spaces are on the other side; or the supermarket checkout queue you are standing in, moves slower than the one next to you?

Robert A. J. Matthews, a British physicist, believes that Murphy’s law isn’t just nonsense. Scientific principles can explain it. In 1995 he showed, in five pages of mathematical equations, why toast usually lands with the buttered side down. Not only he has mathematically proved Murphy’s law of tumbling toast, he has also succinctly explained why we couldn’t find matching pairs of socks: ‘Imagine you have a sock cupboard that has nothing but complete pairs of socks in it. Now, one sock goes missing. Instantly, of course, you have created an odd sock left in the cupboard, left behind. OK. Now, the next time a sock goes missing, it can either be that one odd sock you left in the cupboard or, far more likely, it’s going to be another sock from an as yet unbroken pair.’ If this process continues and if you do calculations using a branch of mathematics called combinatorics, you will find that by the time you have lost half the socks in the cupboard, the most likely outcome is that the number of complete pairs left in there will have been shrunk by 75 per cent. ‘So there is really a Murphy’s law of odd socks as well,’ he says triumphantly.

And after years of research Matthews is still complaining that today’s highly accurate weather forecasts are still not good enough to prove Murphy’s law of umbrellas (‘Carrying an umbrella when rain is forecast makes rain less likely to fall’) wrong.

© Surendra Verma 2016

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