Illustration by Angelika Manhart
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when…

Over Easy

By Y-Lan Boureau

“Nonsense!” Paul mumbled.

But we all heard him, and now he had a whole pack of 2nd-graders staring. The thing is, the kid usually kept to himself, perhaps because he was older. He hardly ever talked, and was not one to pick fights with the most popular boy in the class. Marc had just told us about the “magic of the spring equinox,” when eggs can be balanced on their tip. I didn’t know what “equinox” meant, but it sure was a pretty word. We were lucky to be friends with such a knowledgeable kid. Be it an angry one.

“Are you saying I’m a liar, you cracked-egg face?”

Marc was always making up the most delightful insults.

“Not saying anything.”

“Yes you are! Yes you are! We heard you!” chanted the chorus of minions.

“Not saying he’s a liar. But it’s not true.”

“It is so! My mum balanced two of them!”

“Maybe. But the equinox thing, that has nothing to do with it.”

Who was right? It’s not like we could ask Google. We didn’t even know the internet was starting to connect the whole world. For me, it was clear: Marc was always right, and not only because he was every girl’s not-so-secret crush. Others were asking for a fight, and whoever won would be right. After all, that’s how they did it in the old days– God would show where the truth lay.

But Marc wanted to do it another way. He ran back to the school kitchen and begged for an egg, then watched triumphantly as Paul failed again and again to keep it upright.

“See, tailless squirrel! It can’t be done! Could be done only yesterday. Told you so.”

Ten days later, Paul took six eggs out of his bag, and balanced them one after the other on his desk. He didn’t say anything, just left them there.

Marc, our beloved Marc, was wrong. How we had wanted him to be right, rather than Paul, who was always picking his nose and ripping the wings off flies!

That night I came home wondering if there was always a way to know if things were true. Luckily, my dad had answers to all questions, so I just asked him.

“Daddy, can you prove that the earth is round?”

“No, but someone can.”

“But before that person was born, it wasn’t true that the earth was round?”

“Yes it was, but we didn’t know.”

“So some people can also prove things that are not yet true?”

“Yes. They are not sure if the answer to a question is yes or no, so they invent ways to find out.”

“Who are these people?”

“They are scientists, like me. You could become one if you wanted.”

OK, then.


Y-Lan Boureau received her Ph.D. in machine learning and computer vision from École Normale Supérieurein Paris and NYU, where she also did postdoctoral research in experimental psychology and neuroscience. She is now at Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research, where she works on building more helpful conversations and understanding dialogue.