Danny and I sometimes make fun of our local weatherman.
He is always talking about the “cone of uncertainty.” He’ll gesture stiff-handedly toward a digital map of Houston, the city menaced by a swirling hurricane of neon green and acid yellow, and then sweep upward, painting a widening, white smear across the screen. The hurricane could end up here in Houston. Or maybe in Brownsville. Mexico is an option. Beaumont, perhaps?
This white smear across Texas is the weatherman’s cone of uncertainty. And he uses it to be on the safe side. When Hurricane Rita headed through the Gulf, weathermen ditched the cone of uncertainty and opted for panic mode, begging Houstonians to head to Austin or Dallas,thus beginning a mass exodus that would gridlock the interstates for days. Houston — to the annoyance of those, like myself, who spent DAYS in the car without proper bathroom facilities — experienced only a few showers.
In light of this, the cone of uncertainty seemed like a cop-out. They were mocking us with this cone of uncertainty.
But. BUT. As the science-literate among you may know, the cone of uncertainty is legit! It is not a figment of our weatherman’s nervous imagination, although I wish it was. It even has a Wikipedia entry. The cone of uncertainty was developed by NASA to explain the degree of, well, uncertainty as it fluctuates throughout the span of any project. This ucnertainty can relate to many different factors — time or location, for example — and can only be zero when a project is complete. This concept was named the cone of uncertainty because it looks like a cone when mapped out on a chart, like this:
Why was I not told of the cone of uncertainty earlier? This is perhaps the most useful concept a graduate student can keep in her arsenal of excuses, rationales, and long-winded explanations. When will I finish my dissertation? Let’s consult the Dissertation Cone of Uncertainty. Looks like that project will be complete anywhere between 2009 and 2011. What job will I land when I leave Rice? Once again, let’s consult the cone! I could end up flipping burgers while quoting Dickens or drawing a six-figure salary (plus lecture tour honorarium) at an Ivy League institution.
I can see making use of this cone of uncertainty throughout my private and professional life. When will we have children? The Reproductive Cone of Uncertainty predicts any time between my thirties and menopause. Or perhaps after, as we’re looking to adopt.
When will I actually clean the bathroom? There isn’t a cone of uncertainty big enough to accommodate the possibilities.