Everyone is welcome here --- except those who have borrowed books from me for and have not returned them yet!

Personal Bio

Posted on May 26, 2014 in Personal

Are you sure you would not rather play pacman?


Born in Villiers-le-Bel in 1968, from Anne, a radiology technician, and Patrick, soldier in the French air force[^1]. My sister, Séverine, was born in 1972, and is now a French teacher. Thanks to my father's job, we moved and lived in a beautiful region in Germany, the Hartz Mountains, straddling the border between Western and Eastern Germanies, from 1972 to 1978. Despite my young age (4 to 8 years), I still have very found memories of freedom and the pleasures of living in a gorgeous natural park. The Hartz is a kinf of "paradise lost" for me as, when we moved back to France, we had to live in non-descript building blocks in Viry-Châtillon, a suburb in the south of Paris. I feel for children who are raised only in the Paris suburb and are not in contact with Nature. Until age 11, I remember being an avid reader at the local library where I have been granted the right to borrow books from the adult section after I had quickly read the entire "young readers" section.

In 1979, my family moved to Sarcelles, another suburb in the North of Paris. I had rather good times there, during my years in junior and senior high-school. One of the most memorable thing was the introduction to Euclide's geometry, and more generally the axiomatic approach to Maths. For that, I am extremely grateful to my Math teacher at the College Evariste Galois: Mr. Moreau.

In Sarcelles, I made friends of various cultural backgrounds. I did not travel but I had fun and great opportunities to appreciate both the diversity and profound unity of humanity. I remember spending much time in cafes, debating with friends, or on the tennis playgrounds. I was still a frequent user of the local library. Two books hidden on the science shelves of this library had a decisive influence on my future -- Machina Sapiens by W. Skyvington and the Philosophical Foundations of Physics by Rudolf Carnap. I remember a summer spent pissing off my friends by trying to share my fascination for the language teaching experiments in chimpanzee and for the early attempts at creating intelligent programs in LISP, reported in Machina Sapiens.

Another foundational experience was, thanks to a great teacher, the discovery of Mathematics (logic, set theory, Euclidian geometry,...). For a few years, I though that every problem in life could be solved through the impeccable logic of Maths ;-)

Around the same time -- the end of junior high school -- I discovered another passion: computers. I had been initiated to programming earlier thanks to the giftof a Texas Instrument TI-57 programmable calculator (with 50 bytes of program memory, whaow!), and I had self-taught myself about machine language and Fortran from technical manuals of IBM 360. When I was 13, my parents kindly agreed to buy me a computer, which cost a fortune at the time. After a deep market study[^2] I settled on an Atom Acorn , simply the best personal computer at the time (period!). It was a delight to program in 6502 machine language or Forth. I remember a trip to London where I bought, for 150 pounds, a 4 kilo-bytes memory chip with 450ns access time. Those were the days. Unfortunately, I could not afford the floppy drive at had to use a tape recorder to save my programs -- at 300 bauds....

Despite being a bit geeky during those high-school year, I managed to capture a girlfriend, Géraldine, who is still putting up with me when I am writing these lines.


As a kid, I really hoped to become a car mechanics (or Santa Claus), but after high-school, I decided to study Math & Physics at Paris 6 University and, parallely, to enroll in a "classes prépa" (Math Sup) at the lycée Condorcet. I had read such horror stories about the prépas that I imagined that I would quickly drop out. Actually, the two years of Math-sup and Math-spé turned out to be very nice ones, with supportive professors and friendly fellow students. I loved Maths & Physics and it felt wonderful to be able to focus . I remember reading and rereading the Feynman's lectures, especially the volume on quantum mechanics.

At the end of prep school, I participated in the national competitions for the Grande écoles. Luckily, my scores were high enough to be able too enter most of them, except the one that I would really have liked to enter: The Ecole Normal of Rue d'Ulm; The Graal of young french would-be mathematicians. I did not take it too badly though: the fact that the curriculum at the Ecole polytechnique looked varied and interesting -- and that I would receive a salary during my student years -- overcame my reticence to attend a military school.

At the time -- in 1987 -- the first year at the Ecole polytechnique was devoted to military service, in order to instill some leadership in our poor souls. The first month was not fun at all, as I could not disguise my repulsion towards many military values (although I was trying hard to adapt as I was there on my free will...) I was struck by how many young people of my age seemed to fit perfectly and enjoy the military spirit. Anyway, I was lucky enough to be later assigned to an Air force's fighters squadron (the 3/30 Lorraine) where most pilots were aviation enthusiasts rather than soldiers. I was quite knowledgeable about aircrafts as my father, grand father and grand-grand father has all done a career in the Air Forces [^3] and I had attended many air shows. I am thankful for the the opportunity to fly on a training jet -- the Fouga Magister. One odd experience was to participate in the training of Iraki pilots as France supported Irak during the war against Iran (Is this official? I do not know...). I also remember that I had a red stamp with the word "Classified" ("Confidentiel Defense") that I used to stamp on every piece of paper passing into my hands.

The following two years at the Ecole Polytechnique were quite fun. To be fair, they were not difficult to enjoy as I was being paid to study with impressive teachers (a notable exception was Thierry de Montbrial, an idiot with an inflated ego who taught micro-economics). The chemistry professor even managed to make me enjoy his field, despite the fact that I had hated chemistry before (My memory is only good for logical things, and nobody had taught me Chemistry in a logical way) .


Alas, even the best things (being supported to learn) cannot last eternally and I had to live the Ecole. Choosing between training to later work for a company or training to become an academic was not too difficult. I had only the foggiest ideas about what both careers would entail, but I had seen admirable role models in some professors, and none from the industry (I noticed that most of the polytechniciens who chose an academic career were coming from the lowest socio-economic background, which is certainly not a coincidence. "Free will" they say...)

My initial plan was to do a PhD in robotics or artificial intelligence as I still loved programming computers (in C, Forth, LISP, Prolog, ...). At the time, however, the research projects that were proposed to me were not intellectually attractive. Per chance, while visiting many labs, I met with Jacques Mehler, a cognitive psychologist. I still remember vividly our first encounter: he told me "Personnaly, I am interested in how children learn language. Think about it and come back" (and he gave me a copy of __Systems that learn_ by Osherson to read).

I came back... and stayed in his lab for the next four years. These were wonderful years during which I was lucky to interact and do science (it did not feel like "work" at all!) with peoplelike Anne Christophe, Emmanuel Dupoux, Stan & Ghislaine Dehaene, and others. Jacques Mehler was unique in the way he managed to create a great intellectual atmosphere while showing us that it was possible to enjoy life at the same time. His anarchist view of most things fit well with mine, I believe. To be able to recreate the same mood in my lab is a goal that I fell short of.

After I finished my PhD, we -- Géraldine, me and my 3 years old son Gabriel -- went to live in Barcelona. As I had enjoyed working with Nuria Sebastian during my Phd, I had accepted her offer to come and do a postdoc with her. This how I started to work on bilingualism, with Nuria and Laura Bosch, a collaboration and a friendship which have lasted since then.

After doing psycholinguistics for about 6 years, I really needed fresh air -- by which I mean learning and thinking about new problems and I decided to go and work the brand new Rutgers' center cognitive science with a cognitive scientist I had met and admired, Zenon Pylyshyn. Unfortunatly, for health reasons, we ended up not working very much togeteher but the year at Rugters allows me to meet and interact with many great cognitive philosophers and scientists -- Jerry Fodor, Bela Julesz among others.

Meanwhile, my applications for academic positions in France were denied (My trainig in Psychology was deemed "insufficient" to allow me to get an associate professorship). As much as I fancied the idea to pursue my postdoc period in the US, I had a family in France and decided to come back to Europe at all costs. Fortunately for me, Anne Cutler, from the Max-Planck in Nijmegen very kindly offered to support me for one year, which I spent writing and submitting scientific papers (my apologies, and eternal thanks, Anne!). Finally, in 1998, I was recruited by the CNRS -- the French National Center for Scientific Research -- in one of these increasingly-harder-to-get position of "life-long monk at teh service of science" ("Chargé de Recherche").

While I started my career at the CNRS in the lab where I had done my Phd -- the Laboratoire de Science Cogntive et Psycholinguistique --, I quickly started a research program involving brain imaging and began to work more and more often at the Service Hospitalier Frederic Joliot of the CEA, in Orsay. In 2002, I moved to the Cognitive Neuroimaging lab, directed by Stanislas Dehaene and more years of fun (and hard work!) ensued.

Twenty years later, I sometime feel like a dinosaur in the circus of science, but this is another story.


To be continued if I ever find the time...


Notes:

[^1] My father wrote his own bio (with many pictures) at: http://patrick-pallier.e-monsite.com/pages/ma-vie-d-adulte.html

[^2] Actually there was only a handful of models available on the market a the the time (Pet Commodore, TRS80 and Apple II being the most well known): this was before the boom of the early 80s (Sinclair ZX 80, Commodore 64, Vic 20, ...).

[^3] My grand-grand father was a pilot during the two World wars!