Dr. Fred Books By Dr. Fred


by Fred Bortz

Obeying Murphy's Law

When you are in a hurry and all the traffic lights are red... when soup spills on your best clothes... when your pencil point breaks in the middle of a test... that's what most people call Murphy's Law: "Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong."

In 1948, Captain Edward A. Murphy was the best trouble-shooting engineer on the U.S. Air Force's Rocket Sled project led by Major John Paul Stapp. Stapp, a physician and test pilot, wanted to know how the human body responds to high acceleration -- rapid changes in speed and direction. Stapp's project was important because scientists and engineers were developing jet planes that could change speed and direction faster than ever before, and they were beginning to think about sending people on rocket rides into space.

The Rocket Sled could accelerate very rapidly, reaching speeds of up to 632 miles per hour (about 275 meters per second)in only five seconds. It could stop even faster, sometimes going from a top speed to a full stop in as little as 1.4 seconds. A person riding on the sled would feel enormous forces, which scientists determined by measuring the acceleration or deceleration in comparison to the Earth's gravity. The safety harness of a passenger experiencing a deceleration of 30 G's would restrain him with a force of 30 times his weight.

Stapp didn't want to risk the life or health of any of his team members, so he rode the sled himself. Every trip was a wild ride. When the sled accelerated, he felt as if an elephant was standing on his chest while someone peeled the skin from his face. Then, when the brakes were applied, he felt like he was being slammed into a brick wall.

One day, Stapp climbed into the sled and was strapped into his seat for a ride faster than 31 G's. When he got out, he asked how fast it was this time. Each of the sled's six G-meters read zero!

Stapp asked Captain Murphy to find out what had gone wrong. Murphy discovered the problem: The G-meters had been installed backward. Recalling the incident in 1983 for an article in People magazine, Murphy said he told Stapp, "If there's more than one way to do a job and one of them will end in disaster, then somebody will do it that way." He remembers Stapp's reply as, "That is Murphy's Law."

A few weeks after being victimized by the backwards G-meters incident, Stapp told an Air Force press conference a different version: "If something can go wrong, it will." The reporters loved it, and from that day until now, the phrase "Murphy's Law" has been part of our language -- although incorrectly stated.

What Captain Murphy really meant was that engineers should always be careful to look for anything that can lead to failures of their designs -- and eliminate it.

Of course, engineers are human, so they sometimes miss something that can go wrong. When they do, according to Murphy's Law, failure will certainly follow. If they are good engineers like Murphy, they learn from that failure, whether it is big or small.

In fact, they learn far more from failures than successes, including the failures of others. For example the Rocket Sled experience told them to design parts that can be installed in only one way, so if someone tries to put them in backwards or upside-down, they don't fit.

Because people don't like to talk about what they did wrong, most small failures are never reported. That's too bad, because small failures can teach us how to avoid larger ones. But when catastrophes occur -- sudden, unexpected, or tragic failures -- they attract attention. People talk about them, study them, and -- we hope -- learn from them.

In this book, you'll read about spectacular engineering failures, some of which were tragic and catastrophic. More importantly, you'll discover that spectacular success is possible when you truly understand the causes of failure.

That's what Murphy's Law really means: If you want things to go right, pay attention to everything that can go wrong. Now that's a law worth obeying!
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Text copyright 1997-2002 by Alfred B. Bortz, all rights reserved

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