In the US, at least, today is Columbus Day. A minor federal holiday, to be sure, and one that sees a lot of justifiable opposition these days. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I’d like to talk about something that never happened to Columbus, but which is often attributed to him anyway (as most noble stories you hear about Columbus are).
The apocryphal story, excised here from Wikipedia, is often referred to as “The Egg of Columbus:”
Columbus was dining with many Spanish nobles when one of them said: ‘Sir Christopher, even if your lordship had not discovered the Indies, there would have been, here in Spain, which is a country abundant with great men knowledgeable in cosmography and literature, one who would have started a similar adventure with the same result.’ Columbus did not respond to these words but asked for a whole egg to be brought to him. He placed it on the table and said: ‘My lords, I will lay a wager with any of you that you are unable to make this egg stand on its end like I will do without any kind of help or aid.’ They all tried without success and when the egg returned to Columbus, he tapped it gently on the table breaking it slightly and, with this, the egg stood on its end. All those present were confounded and understood what he meant: that once the feat has been done, anyone knows how to do it.
I imagine anyone with experience working in software, engineering, architecture, mathematics, or any other industry rooted at heart in solving problems understands the moral of this story. Obvious solutions are often only obvious after the fact, so we need to be careful about dismissing problems as trivial without understanding what went into solving them first.
That said, there’s another lesson to this story that I think is even more important – elegant solutions seem obvious after the fact; before the fact, they seem inconceivable.
Often when discussing a hard problem with folks, I picture what those fabled Spanish nobles might have said as they fussed over Columbus’s egg.
“It can’t be done,” one might have said, “unless you first build a device for stabilizing it.”
“It can be done,” says the noble who just returned from his trip to China, “but only when the moon is right.”
“You have to find the right spot on the table,” says another, “so that the natural patterns in the wood will support the egg.”
“I think you’re right, but this table doesn’t seem to have the right grain.”
“Maybe if we went to the Italian’s shop next door? His counter is made of the most interesting olivewood…”
…and so on. Again, this is a conversation that I imagine most of us find familar, in structure if not content. Given a difficult problem to solve, the nobles assumed that there couldn’t be a simple solution and resorted instead to trying shortcuts (building a device), changing the characteristics of the problem to suit their biases (waiting for the moon to be in phase), or going off down the rabbit trail of an overly complicated solution (like finding the right table on which to balance the egg).
This is the more important lesson to learn from our fictional version of Columbus – that a hard problem doesn’t have an obvious solution doesn’t mean that there isn’t a simple solution. When you’re confronted with such a problem, try to resist the temptation to cheat, change the rules, or over-complicate the problem; if you do, you’ll be better able to recognize how to balance the egg.