The Elegance of My Father

by Matthew E May

My father’s 78th birthday would have been this year, had he lived to see the day. It’s been ten years since his passing from complications arising from a rather rare blood disorder called polycythemia…too much blood. In honor of the decade without him, I thought I’d post part of my book that did not make the final edit. I’ll reprint it here as it would have appeared…the final story in the book.

I will bring the search for elegance to a close with a story my father told me many years ago during a rather uncomfortable drive home from college for winter break my freshman year. For the entire semester I had been wracking my brain, stymied by a particular physics concept that I just could not for the life of me wrap my brain around. With physics in general, I was struggling. My father had been a physics major, but rather than deliver immediate relief in the form of the answer to the particular riddle I was wrangling with, he told me a fable about a simple farmer who comes across an immense boulder when clearing his fields.

Now, no matter how hard he tried, no matter what he did, the farmer could not push the massive stone off the field. Repeated attempts to do so only stole his energy and enthusiasm. The rock remained, however, and he could not plant his crops with it in the way. The farmer was at a loss, mourning his predicament, and paralyzed by the thought of his imminent misfortune. He fretted to the point of becoming desperate. Throwing his hands up in surrender at his fruitless efforts, he walked away and went to the well for a cool drink of water. As he peered into the dark hole, inspiration hit: a hole!

The farmer raced to his shed, grabbed a shovel and a lever, and returned to the field. He dug a broad and deep hole around, under and in front of the rock and used the lever to tip the boulder into the hole. He then covered it with dirt. From that day on, the farmer stood each day on the spot where he’d buried the boulder. What had been his biggest barrier had now become part of his very foundation.

If you think about it, that’s a fairly elegant solution, because symmetry (the boulder remains the same), seduction (filling in of a gap), subtraction (removal of dirt) and sustainability (problem solved without causing others) all play a part.

This was my father’s way of telling me something, and it was up to me to figure it out. Knowing my dad, I knew his message wouldn’t be something as obvious as “keep at it and it’ll come to you.” That would have been too easy, and not nearly thought-provoking enough. As we pulled into the driveway, he made an offhand comment: “The break will do you good.” I nodded, then stopped short. That’s it! His message about the farmer was to take a break, get away from it. Do nothing about it, give it a rest. My father was looking over at me, and seeing that I “got it,” played coy with one of those nonchalant shrugs: “What?”

Sometime during my two-week winter break, under the questionable tutelage of some of my newfound college chums, I learned to ski. Or, more accurately, fall down a mountain wearing ski equipment. It was on the slopes, on my back looking up at the worried faces of a few mates, my ears ringing from the rather whippy whack I took on my noggin, that I finally had the flash of insight about the physics principle. Perhaps a bit of a bang on the head was what it took for me to realize that all I needed to do to get this elegant concept was to stop and think, or maybe think and stop.

I’m not exactly sure if the ringing was of the immortal variety Donald Knuth spoke of when referring to that most famous of Einstein’s equations, but it was most certainly E=mc2 that I finally understood.

Matthew E. May is the author of “IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing.” He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are ‘elegant’ – a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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