Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Finagle’s Law

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 11, 2011

For those who don’t know, Finagle’s Law is this:  “If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong.”  In comparing Finagle’s Law to Murphy’s Law, it’s easy to see that, of the two, Murphy was the optimist.

The term Finagle’s Law was first used by Astounding Science Fiction magazine editor, John W. Campbell, Jr.  He often used the term in his editorials from the 1940s through to 1960s.  However, even though the term Finagle’s Law existed during the same time period as the term Murphy’s Law the public didn’t cotton on to it the way they did with the term Murphy’s Law.

Finagle’s Law was eventually popularized by science fiction author, Larry Niven.  He included references to the dreaded god Finagle and his mad prophet Murphy in a number of his stories and from there, Larry Niven drew attention to Finagle’s Law.

In an episode of Star Trek, Dr. McCoy refers to an alcoholic drink known as the “Finagle’s Folly” which indirectly references Finagle’s Law.

On September 15, 1967 in the Star Trek episode “Amok Time” the following exchange between crew members played out:

STARFLEET [OC]: To Captain, USS Enterprise from Starfleet Sector Nine. Inauguration ceremonies, Altair Six, have been advanced seven solar days. You are ordered to alter your flight plan to accommodate, by order of Komack, Admiral, Starfleet Command. Acknowledge.

KIRK: Lieutenant Uhura, acknowledge that message.

UHURA: Aye, aye, sir.

KIRK: Mister Chekov, compute course and speed necessary for compliance.

CHEKOV: (a bit of a Russian accent) We’ll have to head directly there at warp six, sir. Insufficient time to stop off at Vulcan.

KIRK: Head directly for Altair Six. Sailor’s luck, Mister Spock. Or, as one of Finagle’s Laws puts it, ‘Any home port the ship makes ill be somebody else’s, not mine’. The new president of Altair Six wants to get himself launched a week early, so we have to be there a week early. Don’t worry. I’ll see that you get your leave as soon as we’re finished.

SPOCK: I quite understand, Captain.

The term Finagle’s Law were instrumental in Christopher Stasheff’s books “The Warlock Unlocked” published in 1982 and “St. Vidicon To The Rescue” published in 2005 presented an order of Catholic monk-engineers dedicated to the philosophy of Murphy’s and Finagle’s Laws as well as the philosophy of the Imp of the Perverse.

In reality, Finagle’s Law is responsible for countless storylines in television sitcoms, plays, movies, novels, etc., most especially if they rely heavily on comedy. The odds of something happening as the plot unfolds does not depend on the actual likelihood of it happening.  Instead, the odds of something happening as the plot unfolds depends on the potential for the most disastrous thing happening.   Why would this be? 

It’s because without drama and conflict, there really isn’t any reason for an audience to stick around to watch how it all ends.  This is called the Rule Of Drama that states, “If the potential for conflict is visible, then it will never be passed over.”  Were it not for Finagle’s Law, the Rule of Drama would have a much more difficult time of it all.

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One Response to “Finagle’s Law”

  1. Jeremy Busch said

    Another rule of drama comes from, if I am not mistaken, Anton Chekhov. He stated that if there is a gun somewhere visible in Act 1 of a play, it will be fired sometime later. This is much like the potential for conflict idea mentioned in the post.

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