The True Shape of the Hen’s Egg

by Bob Brussack

To us, of course, the hen’s egg appears perfectly round. But it is in fact narrower at one end. Einstein predicted this. “The hen’s egg,” he wrote, “is narrower at one end, yes?” He scribbled his famous Hen’s Egg Conjecture in the margin alongside his field equations describing general relativityI. In 1961, Einstein’s conjecture was proved correct. Two graduate students at MIT employed multiple lasers to make very precise measurements of the exterior of a hen’s egg. The egg proved narrower at one end. The result was confirmed within months at the Sorbonne and at Trinity College in Dublin with two other eggs from unrelated hens.

The hen’s egg is narrower at one end on earth because every hen’s egg on earth lies near the bottom of earth’s gravity well. It follows that as a hen’s egg moves away from earth, its actual shape should lose some of its asymmetry, and in theory, a hen’s egg entirely immune from the gravitational influence of a planet or any other mass would be perfectly round. A laser apparatus employed by the astronauts on the International Space Station confirmed that a hen’s egg examined there was rounder to a very small but measurable degree.

If a hen’s egg at zero altitude on earth is narrower at one end, then why do we perceive it as being perfectly round? The answer lies in the nature of the brain. It is well-established that the brain is not wired to present the visual world exactly as it is. The information captured by the eye is processed, and the brain presents to our consciousness a model of the world. We see a hen’s egg as perfectly round because the brain shows it to us as perfectly round.

Why does the brain “correct” the asymmetry of a hen’s egg? We don’t know. One hypothesis accepted by some scientists is that evolution plays a role. At some point in the history of our species, our survival might have depended in some way on our being “tricked” by the brain into believing a hen’s egg is perfectly round. Those of our ancestors who saw the hen’s egg as it is might have found the asymmetry off-putting, with the result that they refused to consume any hen’s egg and therefore lost a step in the competition for survival.

We now apparently have it within our grasp, via technology, to correct visually for the brain’s distortions. Several companies reportedly are rolling out software for their smart glasses that can reveal “the Egg as It Is,” to use one company’s slogan. Predictably, the prospect of such technology has had a mixed reception. The legislatures of six states in America have enacted statutes barring the sale or possession of smart glasses with the distortion-canceling capability, and a number of politicians there have dismissed the technology as a hoax, claiming that it actually introduces distortion, making eggs seem narrower at one end. President Macron has announced that the glasses will be welcome in France.

A stain accompanies the handwriting, and we know from Einstein’s own memoirs that the stain is an egg stain. He wrote the Conjecture over breakfast.

Bob Brussack writes poetry and short fiction. He’s been a photographer since his parents gave him a Kodak Brownie for his birthday when he was nine. He was born in Manhattan, lived much of his life in Athens, Georgia, and resides now in Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland. His poetry has appeared in the Roanoke Review, the Naugatuck River Review, the San Pedro River Review, the Black Coffee Review, and elsewhere. His recent short fiction piece, “Toad Took Lunch,” can be found online in the archive of