If it didn’t rain, it just wouldn’t be jubilee

The absolutely lousy weather that hit England on the Queen’s diamond jubilee day on Sunday could have been predicted in 1960 or 1980 or any time you care to mention.

Whoever up there determines England’s weather is always waiting in eager anticipation for a big landmark event so that he or she can say “Now!” and release upon the flag-wavers and crowned heads 10 million tons of rain.

In 1944 during World War II the best meteorologist determined that the calmest day for the D-Day landings to liberate France would be June 5. That day 156 000 troops sat huddled in their storm-lashed landing barges, soaking wet and seasick while the invasion was postponed by 24 hours.

Nine years later the experts predicted that the most likely sunny day for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth would be June 2.

It poured all day.

Closer to home, when the first coffer dam for the construction of Kariba Dam was being designed in the 1960s, engineers consulted meteorologists, geologists, geomorphologists and witchdoctors to determine the highest conceivable flood level.

They then built the coffer dam 1m higher than that only to see it disappear under flood waters.

And when engineers replaced the old bridge across the Caledon on the Free State border and wanted to save the old iron bridge they chose to disassemble it during the winter drought.

As the last bolt was withdrawn the biggest winter flood in memory swept the bridge away.

Such events demonstrate what is known as the Law of Cussedness.

In 1996 Harvard University awarded the annual Ig Nobel Prize for Physics (an irreverent alternative to the Nobel Prize) to Professor Robert Matthews from Aston University, Birmingham, who, the citation said, demonstrated that when buttered toast falls on a carpet it will land, messily, buttered side down but when dropped on a tiled floor it will land harmlessly buttered side up – the Law of Cussedness.

In fact the prize should have gone, posthumously, to a Wits professor of engineering, WJ Walker.

The theory that buttered bread or toast would normally land butter side down on a carpet arose at least 70 years ago when a spoof paper was published in a Witwatersrand University student’s journal.

Jean Cole of Roosevelt Park Ext told me her father, Professor Walker, in an after-dinner speech on February 14, 1969, confessed to having published a bogus experiment in the 1930s and coined the term “the Law of Cussedness”.

There’s a difference between Murphy’s Law that states that “if something can go wrong, it will” and the Law of Cussedness that implicitly says “expect the worst”.

Professor Walker’s spoof paper in the 1930s asked: “Have you ever noticed when you are looking through a list or turning up a file of papers, it is always the last note or the last paper which is the one you were after?

“Or, when seeking an address in a long street the address you want is at the other end.”

He claimed how he and his collaborators, “to demonstrate one of the most inviolable laws of nature, conducted a simple experiment”.

They buttered and jammed a piece of bread and let it fall 100 times in each of several rooms in a friend’s large house.

It was re-buttered and re-jammed each time it landed face down.

“On the stone floor of the kitchen it landed jam side up 100 times… in the banqueting hall, which had a Persian carpet, it landed face down 100 times out of 100.

“From this it was but a step to the enunciation of the more general law: ‘He that expecteth the worst shall never be disappointed.’”


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