The only certainty is uncertainty

“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

The longer I am in graduate school, the more I feel that you need to be extremely comfortable with high levels of uncertainty in order to be happy in this life. Research itself is, after all, an attempt to move from a place of uncertainty into a place of more and different uncertainties. Contrary to popular belief (and much undergraduate coursework), science is not really about collecting and expanding a body of facts, but expanding the number of things we can ask questions about. In Stuart Firestein’s recent book, “Ignorance” (reviewed here and recommended reading for scientist and non-scientist alike), the author suggests that doing science is a lot like looking for a black cat in a dark room, where there often turns out to be no cat at all. Although you might have a good idea of the outcome of an experiment, you don’t know what the end result will be. And of course, unexpected results can lead you to new questions that you didn’t even think you were asking.

Beyond the regular levels of uncertainty that one would expect in research, are the uncertainties that arise from questions about what happens once you have a PhD. One of the most common questions I hear from friends who are gainfully employed and are not doing a doctorate is: what are you going to do once you finish? It’s a fair enough question. I have goals after finishing my thesis – post-doctoral work, teaching, research, publications, the Nobel Prize… But the fact remains that even if I knew where I would like to be working, and what I would like to be doing, much of my future depends on outside forces: funding, supervisors, institutions, and life in general often get in the way of the best laid plans. Which isn’t to say that I have no control over the direction of my life. It just feels that way sometimes!

Uncertainty doesn’t apply only to professional concerns. The life of a student is an itinerant one, and it can be destabilizing to always be moving around. And since everyone else you work with is doing the same thing it can be challenging to continue to open yourself up to new people, when you know that at some point, you will no longer be sharing the same office/ lab/ house/ department/ time zone/ etc. This is a huge strain on relationships, and not only for the obvious reason that the further away you are from someone, the harder it is to maintain a relationship. More insidiously, it can also feel like too much of an effort to get to know someone when you know that they will only be in your life for a short time.

Does this mean you should throw up your hands in despair? Certainly not! Excitement about exploring the unknown is generally why one chooses the path of scientific research. Bringing light into those darkened rooms is one of the goals of science. Outside of the laboratory (or the field site), unexpected opportunities bring us closer to our goals, or may show us that we have goals we had never considered. The people we meet along the way are not gone forever, and shared interests can lead to interesting collaborations. That being said, it never gets easier saying goodbye to people you have grown close to. But at the very least, getting to know new people is a great way to increase the number of places you have a couch to crash on!

4 thoughts on “The only certainty is uncertainty

  1. Great read – I appreciate your philosophical approach to both science and life and the paradox of learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Looking forward to further insights from a curious cat in a dark room

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  2. You are absolutely right that doing graduate research is sometimes like this!

    The first time I heard something close to Donald Rumsfeld’s quote, was in my first COMP class at McGill. The lecturer, a PhD student, was discussing learning in college. He drew four squares and started filling them in counter-clockwise fashion:

    “Learning has 4 phases. The first: you don’t know, that you don’t know. Ignorance is bliss and life is peaceful.

    The second: you know that you don’t know. Now you need to study and life is not so peaceful!

    The third: you know that you know. You are knowledgeable, but you need some effort and attention to bring your knowledge to the forefront.

    The final phase: you don’t know that you know. You can now manipulate your knowledge effortlessly, but it would be hard for you to explain it logically. Your knowledge has melded with your intuition and life is peaceful again. Domain experts are in this category…

    Unfortunately, it is hard to distinguish between being in the first and the fourth category. What’s more, in university, you start off in the first square being taught by people in the last square!”

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  3. Exploring the unknown… There is nothing more adventurous than diving into the great abyss that is science, where the discovery of knowledge exposes the endless lack thereof.

    Great article!

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