Read the text carefully and answer the questions that follow it. Use your own words throughout as far as possible.

Even one has them: days when we would have been better off just staying in bed. At breakfast, our toast slides off our plate and lands on the floor—butter-side down. At the supermarket, we queue up at the checkout—only to find ourselves going nowhere, while the queue next to us zooms through. If you have always suspected that such vexations aren’t flukes1, but the manifestations of a cosmic law, I have good news for you—or bad, depending on your point of view. I can confirm that your suspicions are correct: Murphy’s Law—‘If something can go wrong, it will’—is at work in our universe.

For years, the attitude of most scientists towards Murphy’s Law has been to dismiss it all as a silly urban myth. But over the past two years, using techniques drawn from such arcane branches of mathematics as combinatorics and topology, I’ve discovered that it’s the scientists who’ve got it wrong.

Take tumbling toast which lands butter-side down. In 1991, a TV science programme set up an experiment to find out, once and for all4, if the popular folklore about tumbling toast really was correct. The producer persuaded a group of people to toss buttered toast in the air 300 times. And the result was 148 butter-up landings, and 152 butter-down—an almost 50:50 split, in flat contradiction of Murphy’s Law of Toast: ‘If toast can land butter-side down, it will.’

Or at least it would have been5, were it not for a fatal flaw in the experiment6. For tossing toast isn’t exactly common practice at the breakfast table. When toast does land on the floor, it’s usually after it has slid off a plate. And as a simple experiment shows, this leads to an end-result quite different from tossing it in the air.

Get a paperback book and put it face-upon the table. Now slowly push it over the edge to simulate the effect of toast sliding off a plate. As it goes over the edge, the book simply doesn’t spin fast enough to come face-up again by the time it hits the floor. Barring7 a lucky bounce, the book—or toast—will end up face-down more or less every time. Contrary to popular belief, the butter-side down effect has nothing to do with the presence of the thin layer of butter. It is simply a product of the forces of gravity and friction.

When my paper on the dynamics of tumbling toast appeared in the European Journal of Physics, I was inundated with requests to probe other examples of Murphy’s Law. The trouble with most of them—such as the spoon left in the bowl when you’ve finished the washing-up—is that they are anecdotal, and so difficult to analyse convincingly. Even so, over the past two years I’ve found many other manifestations of Murphy’s Law which can be analysed. And the results are more bad news for those who think we live in the Best of All Possible Worlds.

One of the easiest to explain is Murphy’s Law of Queues: ‘If your queue can be beaten by a neighbouring one, it will be.’ An entire branch of applied mathematics is devoted to the behaviour of queues12, and one of its most basic laws is that although the queues in, say, a supermarket are all subject to random delays, on average they’ll tend to move at the same rate. Again, this looks like a knock-out argument13 against Murphy’s Law. It implies that when we queue up, both our own queue and the two queues neighbouring ours are all just as likely to finish first.

But the key word here is ‘average’. When we go to the supermarket, we’re not interested in averages—we just want our queue to be fastest on that particular trip. And in that case, even if all the queues are exactly the same length, the chance that ours will suffer fewer random delays than both our neighbours is just 1 in 3: two-thirds of the time, one or other of our neighbours will do better, and finish before us.

Tumbling toast and queues are just two of the manifestations of Murphy’s Law I’ve investigated: if you know of more, write and tell me.

(adapted from Robert Matthews’s ‘Murphy Really Does Sock It to Us’)

Questions

1 Explain the phrase ‘such vexations aren’t flukes’.

2 What does the writer imply in the first paragraph about people’s attitudes to Murphy’s Law?

3 Explain the attitude of most scientists towards Murphy’s Law, according to the writer.

4 Explain the meaning of the phrase ‘once and for all’ in this context.

5 What does the writer mean by the phrase ‘it would have been’?

6 What does the writer mean by the phrase ‘a fatal flaw in the experiment’?

7 Explain why the experiment was unrealistic, according to the writer.

8 What does ‘Barring’ mean in this context?

9 What mistaken belief do people commonly have about toast landing butter-side down?

10 Explain why some other examples of Murphy’s Law are difficult to analyse convincingly.

11 Explain what kind of people the writer believes will be upset by the results of his research.

12 What can be inferred from the statement ‘An entire branch of applied mathematics is devoted to the behaviour of queues’?

13 What does the writer mean by ‘a knock-out argument’ in this context?

14 Explain the relevance to us of the average speed at which queues move.

15 In a paragraph of 70–90 words, summarise what the writer says is the evidence both for and against the existence of Murphy’s Law regarding toast and queues.

Sample Answers

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