Last week, the College of Science at Weber State University celebrated its new class of science graduates.

In past years, students dressed in cap and gown festooned in the honors showcasing their accomplishments. Faculty donned their traditional, and somewhat ridiculous, academic garb. Parents and siblings gathered to watch the procession of the graduates filing past the line of faculty, shaking hands, hugging and high-fiving. We’d sit together, shoulder to shoulder, while the dean, valedictorian and a special guest or two (or three) would regale the soon-to-be graduates with words of advice. Then we’d watch as each student rose, their name read as they walked across the stage, shook hands with the dean and finally became a graduate of Weber State University.

Due to COVID-19, this year’s event was held via Zoom. The concept of all that handshaking seems rather quaint. At our virtual ceremony, the outstanding graduate of each department gave a few remarks and then read the names of their fellow classmates. And while I didn’t put on my full regalia, I wore my silly cap and a purple and white tie, even though my students couldn’t see me. At least I got to type my congratulations into the chat window.

Graduation is always an exciting and uncertain time. One chapter of your life is ending, and another is beginning. Although, usually that uncertainty is filled with hope about new opportunities and possibilities, rather than the dread of not knowing what will come.

These days, I think a lot about uncertainty. As a scientist, I am trained to quantify it, and we are schooled in how to manage and reduce it.

In our very first physics lab, we have students estimate the width of a penny using a ruler. It’s a hard measurement to make with one penny, but you can measure a stack of them much more easily and improve the precision of your estimate for a single one.

Take a minute and give it a try. A penny is the same thickness as the smallest division on your ruler, or 1/16th of an inch. A good rule of thumb is that your uncertainty is about one half the smallest unit on your ruler, so you know that thickness to about 1/32nd of an inch. That’s an uncertainty of 50%!

A stack of 16 pennies measures about 1 inch, but the uncertainty in your measurement is still 1/32nd of an inch. By leveraging the fact that pennies are all nearly the same thickness, you’ve significantly improved the certainty in your measurement.

You can do an even better job by measuring the 16 pennies individually and averaging the results. While each measurement has a large uncertainty, the fact that you get about the same answer every time means the overall uncertainty is even smaller. There are other techniques you can use to make even better measurements, but any more details here and I’d have to start charging tuition.

Managing uncertainty in life is more complicated. We usually do this by planning for contingencies and taking out insurance for things we can’t plan for. This is a process that works great provided any given calamity doesn’t impact everyone at once.

Something like a global pandemic. Or climate change.

In those cases, we have to rely on our scientific understanding of physics, chemistry and biology to determine the best course of action. That understanding is going to come with a whole host of associated uncertainties.

A lot of people are talking about “data driven decisions,” especially as we work to reopen our economy. Those to trust are the people who are upfront about the uncertainties in their data.

So far, I’ve been impressed with how Utah has used data, and the uncertainties in the data, to manage the impact of this global pandemic. But we are entering a phase where everyone can agree, we aren’t sure what’s going to happen. Will opening businesses with “social distancing” still help keep COVID-19 cases to a minimum? Does Utah have adequate testing and contact tracing to contain outbreaks before it becomes necessary to shut down the state’s entire economy again? Do we have enough ICU beds for the inevitable surge in new hospitalizations?

The data seem to indicate that we do, and that appears to be driving the governor’s decision to reopen the economy.

But, there are still the “unknown unknowns.” And in these uncertain times, we need our science graduates more than ever.

Dr. John Armstrong is a Weber State University professor of physics. Twitter: @ByJCArmstrong

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